Democrats have tried to rev up the outrage machine over news that Rep. Steve Scalise, the number-three ranking House Republican, may or may not have given a speech to a white supremacist group in Louisiana 12 years ago.
Not only has the Democratic Party attacked Scalise himself, it has also gone after the House GOP leadership and, now, the 2016 Republican presidential field.
The sin of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, et al, according to the Democratic National Committee, is that they have not been quick enough to denounce behavior that — it’s worth repeating — may or may not have happened more than a decade ago.
“Do you really think it’s appropriate to have Rep. Scalise remain a part of Republican leadership, or will you let your silence speak volumes?” the DNC said to the Republican 2016 field on New Year’s Eve.
“Just like last year with Cliven Bundy, and the Duck Dynasty crew just months before, leading Republican presidential contenders are bending over backwards to defend these elements within their party instead of condemning them,” the DNC added in a New Year’s morning email.
There’s a lot of noise, but in this case, the outrage machine is sputtering. In part that’s because of the flimsiness of the evidence involving Scalise. But there are other reasons that have more to do with President Obama and our current politics.
First, it’s important to say that if Scalise did in fact appear before the European-American Unity and Rights Organization in 2002, he shouldn’t have. And if information emerges that Scalise did anything more than that, or that he espoused the group’s ideology, he’ll lose his GOP whip position in a heartbeat.
But if the 2002 speech (or maybe non-speech) is the extent of this story, a lot of Republicans just aren’t in the mood to dump the newly-chosen member of the House leadership. For three reasons, all related to the Obama White House:
1) The Sharpton factor. There’s no need to dwell on Al Sharpton’s offenses, from Crown Heights to Freddie’s Fashion Mart to the Tawana Brawley hoax. Suffice it to say that Sharpton has been behind some of the ugliest racial episodes in recent decades. Yet Sharpton has visited the White House more than 70 times since the first Obama inauguration. Sharpton is said to be on texting terms with Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett and Attorney General Eric Holder. And the president himself has addressed Sharpton’s National Action Network, standing in front of the group’s “No Justice No Peace” logo. So Republicans ask why they should excommunicate Scalise, who may have done absolutely nothing wrong, while Obama embraces Sharpton.
2) The Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Yes, there was a big controversy when videos of the angry, anti-American rants of Obama’s pastor became public during the heat of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. But Obama claimed he never heard the worst of what Wright said, and managed to dispel much of the controversy with a speech in which he declared, “I can no more disown (Wright) than I can disown the black community.” After that, the New York Times editorial page rewarded Obama with an editorial headlined — this is true — “Mr. Obama’s Profile in Courage.” Obama, of course, did not withdraw from the presidential race. So Republicans ask why they should disown Scalise when Obama steadfastly refused to disown Wright.
3) The diminishing effectiveness of the race card. A lot has been written about whether race relations have worsened since Obama became president. Whatever the case, it is true that Obama’s time in office has resulted in an exponential growth of racial accusations stemming from non-racial political disputes.
Criticism of presidents can get pretty harsh, as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will attest. But when Obama has been on the receiving end of harsh criticism, some of his supporters have not hesitated to interpret the situation in racial terms, accusing Republicans of attacking Obama because he is black. The sheer frequency of this has made Republicans wary of Democrats playing the race card. And that is the background of the Scalise controversy; the same instinct behind the portrayal of Republicans as racist for criticizing Obama is now behind attacks on the GOP over Scalise. Republicans are tired of it.
The facts always matter. If new, previously unknown facts appear that cast Scalise’s actions in a different light, then the GOP calculation will change. But unless that happens, don’t expect Republicans to surrender this time.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.