House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy defends Whip Steve Scalise’s indefensible blunder

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, right, of Bakersfield,  confers with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, right, of Bakersfield, confers with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., on Capitol Hill earlier this month. The Associated Press

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the most powerful Republican politician in California, defended House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who had admitted that in 2002, he spoke to a group founded by the neo-Nazi racist David Duke.

And McCarthy wonders why Republicans have a tough time winning elections in the Golden State.

In 2002, not all that long ago, McCarthy was elected to the California Assembly from Bakersfield, and Scalise was a Lousiana state legislator working on tax issues, including a film tax break to lure Hollywood productions.

By 2002, Duke had attained infamy by running neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan organizations, spewing racist garbage, serving in the Louisiana Legislature, and campaigning for U.S. Senate and governor in that state.

Duke gained more notoriety in 2002 by admitting in federal court in New Orleans that he defrauded supporters and filed a false federal income tax return. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

That also was the year in which Scalise spoke to Duke’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization. After initially dodging questions about the appearance, Scalise changed tack.

“It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold,” Scalise said in his statement.

We don’t claim to know what Scalise was thinking when he appeared before the European-American Unity and Rights Organization. But a basic rule of public speaking is to know your audience. That’s especially true for politicians. They don’t attend any gathering blindly.

Still, Speaker John Boehner came to Scalise’s defense, as did McCarthy.

“Congressman Scalise acknowledged he made a mistake and has condemned the views that organization espouses. I’ve known him as a friend for many years and I know that he does not share the beliefs of that organization,” McCarthy’s statement says.

As part of the national Republican leadership, McCarthy probably had little choice but to stand by Scalise. As a Californian, he should know better.

In the election just past, California Republicans sought to rebrand themselves. But that’s tough when they are defined by the national GOP.

“House Republicans seen daily on television defining the party brand increasingly hail from districts where winning the support of Latinos, Asians and African Americans is not essential for their own re-election,” Ron Nehring, who ran for lieutenant governor, wrote in The Bee in September.

There are few places in America where that is truer than Scalise’s congressional district. The U.S. census says 633,000 of the district’s 781,000 residents are white. That’s 81 percent. More than 90 percent are U.S.-born.

Scalise won re-election with 77 percent of the vote in November. Republicans made gains in much of the nation. But they went in reverse in California by losing a congressional seat.

McCarthy told The Bee’s Christopher Cadalego that he is undertaking an intensive review of the House GOP’s campaign operation to figure out why Republicans fell short in California. Maybe he is looking too far afield.

Perhaps the issue doesn’t have to do with how California Republicans ran races. Perhaps it has to do with Republicans who claim to support minorities and new Americans, but speak to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization. And maybe leaders who make excuses for the indefensible share some of the blame.