Let's be as generous as we can to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Let's say he spoke to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization but had no idea it was a white supremacy group backed by David Duke. Let's say the name didn't raise any red flags for Scalise, or if it did, he didn't follow up on them. Let's take him at his word that, in 2002, he didn't know there was such a thing as Google (or any of its competitors), and neither he nor his staff even cursorily vetted the groups he accepted speaking invitations from.
It is clear how Scalise sees this explanation as exculpatory, and in a sense, it is. He may not have specifically realized he was speaking to a white supremacy organization, nor made any effort to find out. But these excuses are, in their own way, damning. They speak not just to what Scalise didn't know, but to what he didn't really want to know, and didn't feel the need to find out. And what makes them dangerous to his career is they're part and parcel of some ugly compromises he made while making his name in politics.
David Duke was a major figure in Louisiana politics when Scalise was rising
Scalise emerges from — and there's really no other way to say it — an incredibly racist political culture. When asked by the Washington Post how Scalise ended up at a EURO meeting, Duke explained that Scalise was friendly with Kenny Knight, Duke's former campaign manager, because being friendly with Duke's operation was savvy for anyone with Scalise's political ambitions.
Scalise "recognized how popular I was in his own district," Duke said. "He knew that knowing what I was doing and saying wouldn’t be the worst thing politically. Kenny would keep Scalise up to date on my issues." It's Kenny, in Duke's telling, who got Scalise invited to the conference.
It's clear from Duke's comments that he didn't think Scalise a brother-in-arms. "No lunches, no dinners with Scalise. I never supported him in any campaign," Duke told the Post. "I didn’t get the impression that he was one of us. I didn’t cultivate a relationship. Kenny was the one who did."
This is the line Scalise appears to have walked while rising in Louisiana politics: not pro-Duke, but not anti-Duke, either. There's a telling quote from 1999, when Duke was running for Congress and Roll Call asked Scalise to comment.
Another potential candidate, state Rep. Steve Scalise (R), said he embraces many of the same "conservative" views as Duke, but is far more viable.
"The novelty of David Duke has worn off," said Scalise. "The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can't get elected, and that's the first and most important thing."
The question was an opportunity for Scalise to go much further, to say something like, "David Duke is a racist who this state should be ashamed of. He would be an embarrassment to this district if he was elected to Congress." Instead, he implies sympathy with Duke's ends, but argues that Duke can't win. He argues, in effect, that even if you agree with Duke — and Scalise suggests that maybe he does, at least on some issues — voting for Duke is counterproductive.
If you gave Scalise truth serum and asked him about this answer today, my guess is he could give you a pretty good explanation: Duke was popular in Scalise's district, and attacking him as a racist would have backfired. The best way to doom Duke's campaign was to gently, insistently question his electability. Remember: you can't change people's minds about politics unless they think you already agree with them.
Scalise's Trent Lott problem
In the context of Lousiana politics, this all made a twisted kind of sense. It might even have felt, to Scalise, noble. He was nudging his district towards a more racially enlightened strain of conservatism. But that process had to be done slowly, and carefully, and it required talking to people and even working with people that Blue State elites might look down on.
But outside Louisiana, this doesn't look noble, or even justifiable. This was 2002, not 1956. Eminem was topping the charts. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was dominating the box office. You could own an X-Box. This was only a few months before Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott would be driven from his position as Senate Majority Leader for saying that if Strom Thurmond had won the presidency as a Dixiecrat, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years."
Thurmond is, in a sense, the correct comparison here. I'm willing to believe Lott didn't really mean to say what he said, just as Scalise may not have realized the kind of group he was talking to. But the reason that sentence could slip so easily from Lott's lips was that Lott was practiced at winning votes from people who really did believe that if Strom Thurmond had won the presidency, then we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years. He knew how to suggest sympathy with their views without specifically endorsing them, and then he did it, accidentally, on camera, and his words were heard by people who don't hold those views, and find any accommodation with them repugnant.
Similarly, Scalise might well have ended up at the David Duke-backed European-American Unity and Rights Organization without knowing who they were or really bothering to find out. He might well have been trying to destroy Duke by questioning his electability rather than his views. But that's only because he was practiced at appealing to the kind of people who really did support David Duke and really were sympathetic to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization. And, now that Scalise has risen through Louisiana politics to become a nationally influential figure, that's the problem.
The biggest question for Scalise's future is whether there's anything else. Now that Scalise's speech to EURO has been found, and his comments about David Duke unearthed, political reporters are going to go looking for more. If this is the end of it, Scalise might be fine. If it isn't, then his career is in jeopardy.
Correction: This post originally said Duke and Scalise had represented the same district. In fact, Duke represented the 81st district and Scalise the 82nd. Thanks to Justin Green for pointing out the error.