Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?

Now that he’s under duress, Steve Scalise will denounce David Duke. But when it mattered, he courted Duke’s racist voters. Will a Republican ever intentionally offend extremists in the base to gain credibility with the center?

Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise is the new member of the Republican House leadership, replacing Eric Cantor, who lost his primary to a Koch-brothers candidate. Scalise is supposed to be the link between the leadership and the GOP’s extreme right wing, a role he appears to be good at.

But a funny thing happened: A blogger* (Lamar White Jr.) did some digging and found out that in 2002, then-state-rep Scalise was “an honored guest and speaker at an international conference of white supremacist leaders.” The group was the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a hate group established by KKK-Grand-Wizard-turned-Republican-politician David Duke.

Now Scalise says he doesn’t remember the event (which an aide said it was “highly likely” he had attended), and there’s a complicated version of the story in which it’s all a big misunderstanding; he just happened to be speaking at the same hotel at the same time to a lot of the same people. (Under further investigation, this version is falling apart.) Scalise claims he wouldn’t have spoken to EURO if he’d known what they were. He mentions giving hundreds of speeches with just one staffer, implying that the EURO gig just slipped through the cracks somehow.

But that explanation doesn’t pass the smell test. Duke was not an inconsequential figure in Louisiana politics in 2002. In 1991 he had stunned the state Republican Party by out-polling the establishment Republican candidate in the primary and winding up in a run-off for governor. (In the run-off, a national controversy in which Duke’s Klan-leader past was a major issue, he got a majority of the white vote and 39% statewide. If the Voting Rights Act of 1965 hadn’t enfranchised blacks, Duke would have become governor.)

In his early campaigns, Scalise at times consciously courted Duke voters. A Roll Call article from 1999 reported on a congressional race Duke was considering:

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 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.”

Three years later, Scalise couldn’t have just not noticed that David Duke was leading EURO now, or not known what that meant.

The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler makes the right point: The problem this incident illustrates isn’t that Scalise himself is or was a white supremacist — he probably isn’t and wasn’t. But (especially in the South) white racists have become a key component of the Republican base, one that a canny politician has to court, even if he can’t publicly endorse their ideology.

if in 1999 you said “the first and most important thing” about Duke was merely that he couldn’t get elected, rather than his despicable racism, it says something important about the voters you were trying not to offend. Many of those voters are still alive today.

In Democratic circles, you frequently hear talk about a “Sister Souljah moment“, which has been defined as “a key moment when the candidate takes what at least appears to be a bold stand against certain extremes in their party”. The paradigmic SSM was when candidate Bill Clinton denounced statements by black rapper Sister Souljah, saying “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

But SSMs only happen on the Left. (The article I took that definition from discussed Mitt Romney’s missed opportunity for an SSM, when he failed to denounce Rush Limbaugh’s grotesque slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke, saying only that slut was “not the language I would have used“. The substance of Limbaugh’s comments was apparently fine with Mitt; only his language was objectionable.) When the national media gets focused on an issue like Scalise’s EURO speech, conservative politicians can be cornered into rejecting an extremist like David Duke or Cliven Bundy — and can’t be cornered into rejecting Rush Limbaugh, no matter he says or does — but no Republican creates such moments to demonstrate his or her reasonableness to the moderate voter.

So no Republican presidential candidate — not even a so-called “moderate” like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie — is going to confront conservative extremists with reasonable positions and intentionally get himself booed.** No one is going to tell CPAC that the party needs to move to the center, or endorse background checks in front of the NRA, or defend church-and-state separation at the Values Voters Summit, or confront the Energy Alliance with the facts of climate science, or tell white racists that he really isn’t interested in their support.

Instead, if candidates don’t feel comfortable endorsing extremist views outright, they will dog-whistle to these groups, as Scalise did to EURO in 2002***, or Ronald Reagan did to white racists in 1980. They’ll present their conservative bona fides to CPAC, defend “constitutional rights” to the NRA, endorse “traditional values” to the values voters, identify with “sound science” in front of the Energy Alliance, and talk to white racists about the deficiencies of “inner city culture”.

Everyone in the room will know what those words mean. The extremists will come out feeling that the candidate agrees with them in his heart, but his agreement will be deniable in front of the general public.

Maybe someday there will be Sister Souljah moment on the Right. But not yet. The crazies are too important a constituency, so all serious Republican candidates have to pander to them.

* Can we finally put to bed the canard popular among mainstream journalists that they do all the investigative reporting, while bloggers just bloviate based on mainstream journalists’ discoveries? Bloggers may not have access to anonymous “highly placed sources” and can’t score interviews with Dick Cheney, but collectively we plow through a lot of original source documents. White apparently rummaged through the online archives of the white-supremacist Stormfront group. I doubt he had to elbow any Washington Post reporters out of the way.

** Romney did construct a reverse-SSM when he intentionally evoked boos from an NAACP gathering, thereby proving to extremists in his own party that he would stand up to black leaders.

*** According to a contemporary Stormfront account, Scalise didn’t directly endorse white supremacy at the EURO meeting. (But if Scalise thought he was speaking to some other group, that distinction apparently was lost on the Stormfront commenter, whose subject-line says “EURO/New Orleans 2002”.) Instead, he spoke about a topic white supremacists would appreciate: government favoritism to blacks.

Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race.

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