(JTA) — A recent revelation that a top Republican addressed a white supremacist group is reviving an age-old Washington debate: How important are false steps from the past in evaluating a party today?
Not very, say Republicans, in the case of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives sworn in on Tuesday. In 2002, when he was a state legislator, Scalise spoke to a group affiliated with the white nationalist David Duke.
Not so fast, counter Democrats, who say the speech, while not indicting Scalise as a racist, underscores what they claim is the GOP’s propensity to flirt with extremists.
Aaron Keyak, a consultant to Democrats and Jewish groups, says the issue is potent and serious enough to merit continued attention as both sides bid for the votes of Jews, blacks, Hispanics and women ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
“There will be increased scrutiny of the schedule of Congressman Scalise and other Republicans,” said Keyak, who until last year was a senior adviser to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
He added: “There is a whole litany of reasons the Republican Party is out of step with the Jewish community, and this is only one symptom of how out of touch they are.”
Jewish Republicans say they would prefer that the past remain the past – but they are prepared to give as good as they get.
“You’re referencing a meeting that took place a dozen years ago,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the sole Jewish Republican in the incoming Congress. “The next person may be concerned about the president meeting with Al Sharpton 82 times in the White House.”
Sharpton, a civil rights activist who is known for his fiery rhetoric about Jews during the 1991 Crown Heights riots, has visited the Obama White House 72 times, the majority for large events, according to a recent Washington Post report.
Scalise has said he regrets the 2002 speech and was not aware that the group had been founded by Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.
The Anti-Defamation League said that Scalise’s statement puts the matter to rest for now, but also that the threat posed by Duke and other white supremacists should not be minimized.
A number of recent profiles of Scalise noted that as an ambitious Louisiana pol, he cultivated friendships and alliances with black leaders. However, he also looked to the base that had propelled Duke to prominence in Louisiana state politics in the 1990s, when Duke served as a state legislator and ran for several other offices.
Kenny Knight, a longtime Duke adviser, donated $1,000 to Scalise’s congressional campaign in 2008. And Scalise voted twice in the State Legislature against making Martin Luther King Day a holiday.
“It’s part of a narrative, a steady drip of policy announcements and appearances at events that seem to suggest a deaf ear to Jewish sensitivities and to minorities’ sensitivities,” said Greg Rosenbaum, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Ann Lewis, who headed communications in the Clinton White House, says the controversy is reminiscent of remarks made during the 2012 campaign by Todd Akin, a GOP candidate in Missouri for the U.S. Senate who suggested that rape could not lead to pregnancy in arguing against a rape exemption to any abortion ban.
Lewis, who also advised Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 2008 presidential run, says the GOP showed discipline in the 2014 elections in controlling such problematic statements, but charges that the policies underpinning the statements persisted.
“Candidates understood why 2012 was a problem,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to see any better support for women’s health issues.”
Lewis notes a concerted national campaign by the state Republican parties to add abortion restrictions through state legislative bids.
“Do you take this kind of behavior seriously, do you understand the signal you send?” she said. “With Scalise, what I hear from the Republican leadership is they are the victims because they are getting criticized.”
News of Scalise’s speech comes as Republicans are making a concerted effort to appeal to minorities and women, playing up the election to the House of Zeldin and Mia Love, a black woman from Utah.
But controversies over past political moves are hardly the domain of a single political party, says Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“On both sides of the aisle there’s a lot of this gotcha politics that goes on,” he said. Whether charges would stick, he says, depended “on the totality of the individual and the circumstance.”
Scalise will survive, Brooks says, in part because the incident is in the past and some Democrats are defending him now.
Zeldin says Republicans will appeal to minorities by focusing on bread-and-butter issues that trumped identity politics.
“When the debate is focused so much on budgets and job creation and improving the business climate, it becomes much more of a strategic advantage for Republicans to improve on that outreach with groups that have been primarily voting Democrat in the past,” he said.
Rabbi Jack Moline, who until November directed the NJDC, says Democrats should pitch their fight on an issues level and not focus on bad past decisions.
“What we needed to demand from Rep. Scalise was an explanation and we got it,” he said.
He cites issues where Republicans would easily lose Jews, including rolling back the social safety net, opposition to immigration reform bills and the growing wing within the GOP that opposes a robust U.S. role overseas.
“Those are things we ought to be debating, not whether or not someone who grew up in Louisiana has been exposed to bigotry,” Moline said.