Quin Hillyer: Steve Scalise on fast track to leadership

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., walks through a staircase at the Capitol is Washington, Wednesday, June 11, 2014, the day after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was defeated in the Virginia primary at the hands of a tea party challenger. Jockeying has broken out among Republicans eager to move up the House leadership ladder and Scalise is viewed as a potential candidate to make an appeal for the majority leader post. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Show caption
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., walks through a staircase at the Capitol is Washington, Wednesday, June 11, 2014, the day after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was defeated in the Virginia primary at the hands of a tea party challenger. Jockeying has broken out among Republicans eager to move up the House leadership ladder and Scalise is viewed as a potential candidate to make an appeal for the majority leader post. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

When it comes to Louisianans with a chance to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Jefferson Republican Steve Scalise can only hope that the third time is the charm. With U.S. Majority Leader Eric Cantor losing his primary on Tuesday, Scalise is now openly campaigning for majority whip, just two spots below the speaker in the House pecking order.

This tracks my reporting two months ago in The Advocate that Scalise was poised to rise within House Republican ranks. Then, several weeks ago, the respected national journal Politico devoted an entire article to the likelihood of Scalise ascending — so his swift move into the whip race was no surprise on Capitol Hill, even if most Louisianans did not realize he had become so well-positioned so relatively early in his congressional career.

If Scalise does end two short ladder rungs below the speakership, he will follow the tradition of legendary southeastern Louisiana congressmen Hale Boggs and Bob Livingston. Boggs was House majority leader, one spot ahead of the later-famous Tip O’Neill and one step from the speakership, when his plane disappeared over Alaskan air space. Livingston was within two weeks of becoming speaker when a long-buried personal failing, unearthed during the Clinton impeachment mess, laid him low.

While operating from differing philosophies, Boggs and Livingston both followed the same template of combining superb one-on-one people skills with ideological and attitudinal positioning that honestly straddled the intraparty divides of their eras. (Boggs honorably sided with party “liberals” on civil rights and some economics but stood with conservatives for a strong defense and as a stalwart anti-Communist; Livingston was conservative like most of the 1994 “Gingrich revolutionaries” but on procedure and tradition was an institutionalist, thus, also appealing to the GOP’s old guard.)

Scalise, as chairman of the Republican Study Committee — the caucus of the more conservative half of House Republicans — is following the same pattern; Politico cited several hard-line conservatives speaking glowingly of him but also noted that he worked successfully to repair a frayed relationship between the RSC and the more moderate “business community.”

Last fall, Scalise sparked a furious backlash from conservative organizations when he fired longtime RSC Executive Director Paul Teller, a brilliant operator who was the eyes and ears for those organizations on the Hill, for what amounted to insubordination. Yet, Scalise deftly parlayed the episode to his advantage. First, he had his RSC predecessors — Teller’s former bosses and mentors, who had great credibility with the conservative groups — let it be known that they supported Scalise’s move, based on the internal events preceding the firing.

Then Scalise reached out to the leaders of those outside groups. Whereas Teller previously had acted as a go-between, Scalise now began dealing with them personally and earned their trust. He also has diligently led the RSC in pushing a substantive legislative agenda on issues such as health care and energy, trying to overcome the stultifying caution of the current House leadership.

The very day after Cantor’s loss, Scalise spoke at an exclusive weekly meeting of conservative group leaders known as the Weyrich Lunch — where, observers told me, he was very warmly received by people who, just six months ago, in the wake of Teller’s firing, had been calling for Scalise’s scalp.

Two weeks after the 1992 elections, when Republicans were reeling from losing the White House to Bill Clinton and from losing enough House races to fall a full 40 seats below a majority, I wrote a memo to Livingston (then my boss) envisioning a House majority in just two years (exactly what occurred). I also outlined the reasons why Livingston, then with decent seniority but no major House power base, should end up high in House leadership. My last line was: “Personally, I think ‘Speaker Livingston’ has a nice ring to it.”

Two decades later, the words “Speaker Scalise” are becoming similarly euphonious.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com.