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GOP Settles on Tough Test for Hate Speech

The sullying of civil discourse remains one of the most gratingly persistent reminders of our degraded democracy, and now Republicans in Washington are ready to set a floor on how low one of their own can go.

It's a pretty tough barrier to break through. First off, the offender must be a public official who's already on the fringes of the GOP, who engenders minimal fear or goodwill among colleagues and has almost no power to shape conservative policy or steer debate.

Plus, he must have been known for incendiary and often racist rhetoric for at least a decade – without engendering hardly a word of colleagues' criticism – before coming up with a comment that outdoes all his others.

And he must do so just when his bosses in the House are confronting two years out of power, and realizing that a strategy of ignoring the electorate's growing diversity is not a viable long-term strategy.

In other words, this high-bar tolerance test was tailor-made for the ostracizing of Steve King, an already peripheral player in the congressional Republican ranks who's been saying things offensive to African-Americans, Muslims, gays and lesbians, and especially Latinos since soon after he was arrived to represent northwestern Iowa in the House in 2003.

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But he has never been sanctioned by his colleague until now, with the House GOP leadership kicking him off all three of his committees (Judiciary, Agriculture and Small Business) and several senior GOP senators urging his resignation after King publicly questioned why the terms "white nationalist, white supremacist" were considered offensive.

There is almost no chance this week's sanctioning of King will be a harbinger of a tougher line toward more prominent members of the party. In fact, making an example of a single congressman may even offer the party some short-term cover as it continues its collective enabling of the incendiary speaker-in-chief.

President Donald Trump, in fact, has not said anything critical of King, who has been a loyal ally on almost all fronts and has been especially enthusiastic about Trump's border wall and other hard-line immigration policies.

The new minority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, moved to sideline King by saying his most recent statements, to the New York Times, did not reflect the values of "the party of Lincoln and it's definitely not American." But he did not articulate why this was a tipping point and why the party did not sanction King after any of his earlier comments – such as the first headline-grabber, when he said in 2006 that people crossing the border illegally should be treated like wayward livestock and electrocuted until they turn back south.

King won his ninth term in November by just 3 percentage points, his narrowest victory ever, after reports that he met with a far-right Austrian group founded by a former Nazi officer following a trip funded by a Holocaust remembrance group.

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