What Steve Scalise did in appearing before David Duke’s group—and in twice voting against a Martin Luther King holiday, and in reportedly referring to himself in a chat with a journalist as “David Duke without the baggage”—tells us a lot about Steve Scalise. But what the Republican Party is now doing—or not doing—with regard to Scalise tells us a lot about the Republican Party, and that’s a little more important.
I haven’t seen that one Republican of any note, from Reince Priebus on down, has uttered a word of criticism of the man. Plenty of conservative commentators have said he should step down from his leadership position. Even Sarah Palin sees the sense in this. But among elected Republicans and Priebus, it’s been defense, or silence.
It’s pretty clear what this tells us. Most of the time, institutions of all kinds—political, corporate, nonprofit, what have you—try to duck from scandals and hope they’ll blow over. But occasionally they don’t. Every once in a while, they act swiftly and acknowledge the problem. They do that when they know their bottom line is threatened—when the higher-ups are getting freaked out phone calls from key constituents or stakeholders who are making it clear that this one is serious, that it flies in the face of some basic principle they all thought they were working for, and won’t just blow over.
So the fact that Scalise still has his leadership gig tells us that the key stakeholders and constituencies within the GOP aren’t particularly bothered by the fact that he spoke to white supremacists and indeed might be one himself. They’re certainly embarrassed, I should think. Surely they see the problem here. But they see it as a public-relations problem, a matter to be damage-controlled, which is quite different from seeing it as being plainly and substantively wrong.
This is especially striking, though hardly surprising, in the case of Priebus, Mr. Outreach. As Joan Walsh noted, Priebus has been fond of saying that his GOP would “work like dogs” to improve its standing among the black citizenry, and the brown and the young and the gay and so on. He didn’t specify what breed of dog, but obviously it’s less Retriever and more Bassett Hound.
Here is the RNC’s idea of inclusion. Go to gop.com right now (I mean after you finish reading me!). If the homepage is unchanged from yesterday, when I was writing these words, here’s what you’ll see. Most of it is taken up by a graphic inviting the visitor to participate in the 2016 online presidential straw poll. There are four photos there of representative presidential candidates. Chris Christie and Scott Walker are two. Okay, fine, they’re probably running and are legit candidates.
Let’s see, who else? Jeb Bush? No. Rand Paul? Nyet. Mike Huckabee? Nope. Try Tim Scott and Nikki Haley. Now, Scott and Haley (the black senator and Sikh governor, respectively, from South Carolina) are likely presidential contenders in about the same sense that I’m on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But, as the Wizard said to the Scarecrow, they’ve got one thing I—and Bush and Paul and Huckabee—haven’t got: melanin. So, says Reince, throw their names in the poll so we can slap ’em up there on the homepage!
That’s just so very RNC, isn’t it? The people who bring you all the gospel choirs and so on at their conventions, which looking solely at the entertainment you’d think were Stax-Volt reunions. You’d never guess that only 2 percent of the delegates (36 out of 2,000, in 2012) were black.
As for elected Republicans, if any prominent one has called on Scalise to step down, it has escaped my notice and the notice of a lot of people I read; the farthest any have gone is to offer up some quotes on background about how Scalise is damaged goods, like this quote, which “a GOP lawmaker” gave to Politico: “As far as him going up to the Northeast, or going out to Los Angeles or San Francisco or Chicago, he’s damaged. This thing is still smoking. Nobody is really fanning the flames yet. … The thing that concerns me is that there are people who are still out there digging on this right now.”
Note: The thing that concerns this “lawmaker” is not that his or her party is being partially led by a sympathizer to white supremacists. It’s that the rest of us are still making a fuss about it, which in turn will damage Scalise’s ability to go prostitute himself before the party’s millionaires. If that’s not a near-perfect summation of contemporary conservative politics in America, then such doesn’t exist.
The media tend to frame situations like this as aberrations, but in this case, quite the opposite is the truth. This person who once said that David Duke’s biggest problem was not his racial views but the fact that he couldn’t get elected is who Scalise is. And this is what the Republican Party is—an organization that isn’t bothered in any meaningful way by the fact one of its top national leaders should hold these kinds of ideas in his head. And finally, this is who most of our political press is—gullible enough to be surprised by either of the first two.