Here's some advice for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise that also applies to the Republican Party in general: If you don't want to be associated in any way with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, then stay away from them.
Do not give a speech to a racist organization founded by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, as Scalise did when he was a Louisiana state legislator before running for Congress. Do not pretend to be the only Louisiana politician who could possibly have failed to grasp the true nature of the event, as Scalise did this week when the 2002 speech became public.
Come on, a group called the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), established by one of the nation's proudest and most vocal bigots? Who happens to be, Rep. Scalise, from your state?
House Speaker John Boehner defended Scalise with the usual tut-tut about how speaking to the white supremacists was "an error in judgment" and Scalise was "right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate." Despite this lapse, Boehner said, Scalise is "a man of high integrity and good character."
As if on cue, friends and supporters chimed in to offer evidence of how demonstrably non-racist Scalise truly is. He was an early supporter of Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American, over his white primary opponent! He coached in a predominately black New Orleans basketball league! In the Louisiana Legislature, he voted against a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday -- oh, wait.
See, it's a ridiculous and ultimately meaningless exercise, putting checkmarks in one column or the other to decide whether a politician "is" or "is not" a racist. We hold officials accountable for what they say and do. Whatever feelings he might have in the deepest recesses of his heart, Scalise was simply following the well-thumbed Republican playbook by signaling to avowed racists that he welcomed their support.
This is nothing new. In fact, it's like a bad habit that the party can't seem to quit.
The addiction goes back to 1968, when Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" leveraged white racial resentment over federally mandated integration into an electoral majority. The GOP became the party of the South, even as the region -- and its racial realities -- underwent sweeping change. Mississippi now has more black elected officials than any other state. But do pockets of old-style, unapologetic racism persist, both in the South and elsewhere? You bet they do.
In 2002, Scalise was seeking support for his tax-cutting agenda in the Legislature -- and, of course, contacts that could further his political career. He was invited to speak to the EURO group by Duke's longtime political strategist, Kenny Knight, who happened to be Scalise's neighbor.
As prominent conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote this week on Twitter: "How Do You Show Up at a David Duke Event and Not Know What It Is?" Erickson was not alone in finding it hard to believe that anyone involved in Louisiana politics could fail to grasp what the meeting was and who was behind it.
Poor Boehner has more of a knack for getting caught in vises than anyone else in politics. Usually he gets squeezed between the GOP's establishment and tea party wings. This time, he's mashed between his party's present and its future.
Today, the Republican Party depends on a broad coalition of voters, weighted toward the South, that ranges in views from traditional Main Street conservatives to anti-government radicals who believe that menacing helicopters are about to descend any minute. One thing these GOP voters have in common is that the vast majority of them are white.
The nation, however, becomes more racially diverse every day -- and the Republican Party will have to become more diverse if it is to survive. In picking and electing state-level candidates, the GOP has been doing better with governors such as Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Jindal. In attracting voters, not so much.
One way not to attract African-American and Latino voters -- in fact, one way to drive them away, along with the votes of some whites as well -- is to show that the party is still happy to welcome the support of unrepentant racists and anti-Semites.
Maybe someday the Republican Party will say clearly that anyone associated with Duke, his little group or any racist association should find somebody else to vote for. But this message must be sent with actions that have consequences -- and it wasn't sent this week.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.