WASHINGTON – I like a feeding frenzy as much as the next shark. But I can’t get a taste for Rep. Steve Scalise’s blood.
The Louisiana Republican, newly elected No. 3 in the House leadership, was recently discovered to have spoken to a group of white supremacists. Democrats see his offense as a scandal to be exploited. In a typical press release this past week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee trumpeted the “bombshell” news that a House Republican leader “chose to speak to a white supremacist rally organized by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.”
But the Democratic attacks tended to omit the date of Scalise’s offense: 2002. And that is ancient history given the sea change that has occurred in national politics since then.
Actually, the Scalise episode – and his instant apology and disavowal of racism – is occasion for some pride, and an indication of how much progress has been made in marginalizing the hateful, even in conservative politics and even in the Deep South. A decade ago, it was still common for overt racism to be tolerated within the GOP, and for members of Congress and state officials from the South to address racist groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens and Duke’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization.
“We’re in a different place entirely than we were even 10 or 20 years ago,” Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who runs the Hatewatch blog, told me. “It is extremely rare now for national politicians or state politicians with national aspirations to interact with these groups at all. It’s become absolute poison.”
The groups themselves have declined in number, he said, as political figures shun them both out of fear of getting caught and because of a genuine cultural change. “As the country has become less dominated by whites, it has become less acceptable to make these kinds of statements or have these kinds of associations if you are going to remain in the political mainstream, even in the Deep South.”
Potok still thinks Scalise should quit his leadership role, but he acknowledges that, in 2002, the Louisianan “was operating, obviously, in a different atmosphere.”
Scalise’s decision to speak to the group even back then is deplorable, and his assertion that he didn’t know who his listeners were isn’t entirely plausible. It’s embarrassing for Republicans that the leader who faced a rank-and-file rebellion last week was not Scalise but the very decent House speaker, John Boehner. Scalise isn’t helped by Duke, who earlier this month claimed the lawmaker “echoed a lot of my ideology.”
But Scalise, rather than attempting to excuse his appearance (others tried to argue that he had addressed a different group at the same location), made a statement disavowing “bigotry of all forms” and urged reporters to talk to those who “know what’s in my heart.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond, an African-American Democrat from Louisiana, stepped forward as one such character witness, telling the Times-Picayune that Scalise doesn’t have “a racist bone in his body.”
Fellow Republicans defended Scalise not for his 2002 appearance (which Boehner called “an error in judgment”) but as a man who “absolutely rejects racism in all forms” (as Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Republican governor and an Indian-American, put it.)
Reactions weren’t always this way. In the late 1990s, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) provoked an uproar when their ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens (successor to the racist White Citizens’ Councils) were unearthed. Yet little changed at first. In 2004, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a report documenting that 38 federal, state and local elected officials then in office had attended CCC events since 2000. Among them: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Rep. Roger Wicker (Miss.), now a senator.
Since then, however, a transformation has occurred. Consider the reaction last year, when Chris McDaniel, who had been running a tea party challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Republican primary, was found to be listed as keynote speaker at an event that included a seller of “white pride” merchandise. McDaniel backed out of the event but was nevertheless roundly denounced by fellow conservatives and Republicans.
Likewise, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy got broad support from Republicans for his tax rebellion against the federal government last year. But when he wondered aloud about how “the Negro” was “better off as slaves,” he was instantly abandoned by the Republican officials who had supported him.
Racism still exists, not just in the South and among conservatives but, as this season of police shootings has shown, across America. Still, it’s worth celebrating that the overt racism tolerated by public officials just a decade ago has been banished from civilized discourse.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.