Indiana's Law Is Wrong Anyway

Democrats fumble the easy, honest response to Mike Pence's ugly "religious freedom" law.

By Nathan Pippenger

By the end of the week, the spiraling disaster set in motion by Indiana’s new “religious freedom” law will probably be close to some kind of resolution. If Arizona’s similar experience is any indication, a coalition of corporations and civil rights groups will convince the state to back down. Or there’s a chance that the state legislature could follow Republican Governor Mike Pence’s suggestion and produce a “clarification.” The trouble is that Pence seems to have no idea what he wants to clarify—and strikingly, Democrats don’t seem too clear on the issue either.

In a statement, Pence insisted that “this bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it.” Of course, this did nothing to allay suspicions, and neither did Pence’s terse response when asked point blank, by George Stephanopolous, whether the law would allow discrimination: “Tolerance is a two-way street.” Apparently under the impression that nobody would be clever enough to read between the lines of that response, Pence seemed both grouchy and surprised to face still further questions: Would Indiana make LGBT citizens a protected class under state civil rights law? Or, failing that, would it adopt other suggested clarifications to protect LGBT residents? No dice. “George, look, we’re not going to change the law, OK?”

The interview must be the sort of thing that communications strategists dream about: an opponent who is not just wrong, but evasive, defensive, and contradictory. Which makes the Democratic Governor’s Association response to the interview just a little bit puzzling. This is a small quibble, but in four sentences, the DGA managed to make only oblique reference to the actual problem with Indiana’s law: It allows LGBT people to be treated as second-class citizens. Instead, Democrats chose to stress that discrimination is bad business. Read for yourself:

“Governor Pence’s disastrous interview today was a national embarrassment for Indiana. He showed he could not even answer basic questions about the impact of the job-killing discrimination law he signed this week,” said DGA Communications Director Jared Leopold. “Across the nation, voters know that discrimination is bad for business. In November 2016, Hoosiers will remember the harm that Governor Pence caused to Indiana’s economy with this extreme bill.”

Obviously, history doesn’t turn on press releases, but then again, history also doesn’t turn on milquetoast attempts to downplay your deepest convictions. Liberals think discriminating against gay people is wrong, period. They would still think so even if discrimination benefited Indiana’s economy. And it’s not as if this opinion is a secret—as if Democrats needed some subterfuge to promote gay rights now, in 2015, when the party’s position is clear and enjoys the support of public opinion. I imagine the logic behind this wording was innocent enough. The economy is still voters’ top concern. But that doesn’t mean they won’t rightly cringe when all that’s required—a simple, clear statement of convictions—is replaced by poll-tested pabulum from which all conviction has been surgically removed.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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