Steve Scalise's Job is Safe, and the GOP Thinks It's Turned a Corner

Why the whip endured his David Duke scandal.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana, speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

It probably said something about the pace of the modern news cycle that reporters finally got Josh Earnest to speak for the White House on the problems of Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana–and it felt so late. Scalise was brought up by the AP's Julie Pace in the very first round of questions; she asked if the president believed Scalise should remain the GOP's majority whip in the House, given the news that he'd spoken to a 2002 meeting of a group founded by David Duke.

Earnest relished the question. He answered with some meanderings about how how "in previous situations who they choose to serve in leadership says a lot about who they are," and with some crocodile tear-jerking about how the Scalise mess could affect the GOP's outreach beyond its white base. Three times, when Scalise came up, Earnest recalled a secondhand Scalise quote given to the New York Times by a Louisiana reporter. "He described himself as David Duke without the baggage," said Earnest.

And yet going into Tuesday, and the real start of the 114th Congress, Scalise is safe in his job. None of the 245 other Republicans taking seats in the House have called on him to quit. Two of them, Will Hurd of Texas and Mia Love of Utah, are black; Hurd has remained silent on Scalise, while Love has repeatedly endorsed him.

"From my experience, the majority whip has been extremely helpful to me and all of my colleagues," Love told the Deseret News on Dec. 30. On Jan. 4, Love appeared on ABC's This Week and suggested that Washington "move on" from the controversy. "This is 12 years ago. It's interesting that it's coming up now. That was–I found that really interesting."

Scalise's other colleagues have come to see the episode as a spasm of media malpractice. 

"He's a friend of mine, and I've never known anything about Steve that suggested views of that sort," said Representative John Fleming of Louisiana. "It was distant in the past."

"I think the media moves too fast on a lot of things, whether it's that or it's racial tension in Ferguson," said South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan. "Everyone's trying to scoop everyone else, and with the 24-hour news cycle, whoever gets the 'scoop' gets the most views. That was what happened with 'hands up, don't shoot.' They took an eyewitness account, and it turned out not to be from an eyewitness."

The story would have played out differently had Scalise been caught up in a second event; had, in other words, it been a different story. And it might have festered if the GOP wasn't running straight into a speaker vote. In the first 48 hours of the Scalise story, commentators on RedState and Breitbart were bearish on the whip, suggesting that he step down as a sort of revenge for what leaders like him had done to conservatives.

As the speaker vote took over, most conservative commentary about Scalise focused on Kenny Knight, the David Duke adviser who was telling reporters that Scalise might not have spoken at the conference after all. "It appears that the Scalise 'scandal' is going the way of the University of Virginia rape story," surmised Powerline blogger John Hinderiker, whose site won fame 11 years earlier for debunking a CBS News story about George W. Bush's National Guard service.

Scalise's survival might actually mark a turning point for conservatives and the press. For most of his public life, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins has been pilloried by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups because he once spoke to the Council of Conservative Citizens, and because he managed the 1996 Senate campaign that contracted a Duke-connected group for voter contact. Scalise had taken some of the same pummeling, and survived. Why?

"It’s the trump card that they’ve worn out, the race card," said Perkins. "It's–anybody who has spoken to any group associated with any group is like that group. And that's not sustainable. You look at who the president has had at the White House, child molesters who've been at functions, who've raised money for him–they don’t say the president embraces that. You look at what people had said about Scalise, and I'll say it, too: I’ve never heard him utter in public or private under a word that could be seen as a racist. Sometimes, you’re invited to speak to unfamiliar groups. Part of the whole deal in politics is persuasion."