By Clarence Page
Tribune Content Agency
Just when I thought David Duke had gone the way of the Betamax, buggy whips and record stores, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, Republican politician and jailbird has re-emerged to haunt the new Republican-controlled Congress.
The new House Republican whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana apologized this past week for an honest "error in judgment" that led him to speak in 2002 to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a white nationalist group founded by Duke.
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Scalise, a state legislator at that time, said he didn't remember much about the event except that he spoke against a major tax proposal and knew nothing of a Duke connection. Had he known that they were a bunch of Duke-related white supremacists, he says he never would have appeared.
Kenny Knight, a neighbor of Scalise and a longtime political adviser to Duke, complicated the story in two conflicting interviews. He confirmed Scalise's appearance in a Washington Post interview, then partly backpedaled the next day, telling the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Scalise actually spoke to a local and unrelated civic group two hours before the Duke group's event.
Did Scalise apologize for an appearance he never made? No problem. By then Speaker John Boehner and other House leaders had given Scalise a pass for his "error in judgment," as Boehner put it, noting that the Louisiana lawmaker had apologized.
Still the controversy raises an intriguing question that haunts his party's prospects nationwide: What does a Republican have to do to get elected in places like Louisiana, where David Duke's conservatism sounds mainstream, as long as Duke's name isn't mentioned.
Scalise has a long record of blasting Duke without condemning all of Dukes' views. In a quote widely re-quoted in recent days, Stephanie Grace, a political reporter and columnist with The Advocate of Baton Rouge, recalls him telling her he was "like David Duke without the baggage," meaning he supported the same policy ideas but didn't share the same feelings about minorities.
Scalise took the same better-than-Duke pose in 1999 when he and Duke were considering a race for Congress. "Duke has proved that he can't get elected, and that's the first and most important thing," Scalise told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
calise is hardly alone with that approach. Ever since Duke ditched his Klan robes in the 1970s, tailored his rhetoric to play the white-victim card and switched from the Democrats to the Grand Old Party in 1988, mainstream Republicans have tried to lose Duke but not his voters.
The Duke Factor proved to be impossible to ignore. He successfully won a seat in the statehouse in 1989 and served until 1992, representing a district in the same area that Scalise now represents. In a 1990 Senate race, Duke received 44 percent of the statewide vote, including a majority of the white vote.
After similar repudiations from establishment Republicans in 1991 he lost the governor race but won 55 percent of the white vote. "I won my constituency," he declared.
Since then he has spent much of his time, finding new audiences in which to stoke racial, ethnic, religious and immigration anxieties overseas. In 2003 he was sentenced and served time after pleading guilty to filing a false tax return.
Yet, as much as he is denounced by other Republicans, some have purchased his mailing lists and phone lists and, even if they do not seek his open endorsement, they would rather not have him openly campaigning against them.
Consider the position this leaves Scalise. The trust he has generated with Tea Party conservatives in the House, while working cordially with other members, made him a top choice to win the whip post in June. He has been a valuable ally to help Boehner unify his GOP caucus and keep his own job safe, barring further embarrassing disclosures.
But the re-emergence of Duke in mainstream GOP news does nothing to help the party reach its larger goal of broadening its base to attract a more diverse electorate in presidential election years. So far the party has found it easier to rebuke Duke than to risk losing his voters.