Anyone happen to see Mike Pence yesterday, struggling to defend Indiana’s “religious freedom” law? The new law, blessed with his gubernatorial signature, that offers gay-hating bigots a God exemption? Wow. Watching Pence in action was like rubbernecking at a car wreck.
This is what happens when a politician colludes with religious extremists, and is then forced to humiliate himself on national TV in a hapless attempt at damage control. Pence hit the trifecta of rhetorical failure: obfuscation, evasion, and bluster.
Obsfucation. In his appearance on ABC News’ This Week, Pence kept insisting that what he signed was (a) no different than the federal “religious freedom” law that Bill Clinton signed in 1993, and (b) no different than the Illinois law that Barack Obama voted for as a state senator. What he failed to mention was that those laws were not ginned up by religious conservatives for the purpose of denying services to gay people; rather, as legal experts point out, those laws were enacted for benign purposes, like ensuring that Muslim inmates could wear beards and that “churches could feed homeless people in public parks.” Pence also failed to mention that Illinois – unlike Indiana – statutorily prohibits discrimination against gays, so bigots in that state can’t play the God card anyway.
Evasion. This was definitely the fun part. Time after time, Pence could not or would not answer a direct question.
Pence’s spin (which I referenced on Friday) is that the law is not about discrimination. But yesterday, host George Stephanopoulos quoted a religious conservative group which boasted on its website that the new law will protect Christian store owners who oppose gay marriage. Stephanopoulos said: “So this is a yes or no question. Is (the group) right when they say that a florist in Indiana can now refuse to serve a gay couple without fear of punishment?”
Pence bobbed and weaved for awhile, then said: “This is not about discrimination, this is about empowering people (against) government overreach.”
Stephanopoulos tried again: “And so, yes or no, if a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?”
Pence: “George, this is – this is where this debate has gone with – with misinformation and frankly – “
Stephanopoulos: “It’s just a question, sir. Question, sir. Yes or no?”
Pence: “…People are trying to make it about one particular issue…I think the real question here – “
Stephanopoulos: “That was one of your supporters who was talking about the bill. The group said it would protect a Christian florist against any kind of punishment. Is that true or not?”
Pence: “George, look, the issue here is, you know, is tolerance a two-way street.”
He never did answer the question. So, a few moments later, Stephanopoulos reworded the question: “A final yes or no question, governor. Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays or lesbians?” (A good question, because Republican state legislators, at the behest of the religious conservative lobbyists, rejected all efforts to protect gays from discrimination in the “religious freedom” law. So much for tolerance as “a two-way street.”)
Anyway, Stephanopoulos asked that question. And Pence replied: “Come on, Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination.”
Stephanopoulos tried again: “Yes or no, should it be legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians?”
Pence: “George, you’re following the mantra of the last week online and you’re trying to make this issue about something else. What I am for is protecting, with the highest standards in our courts, the religious liberty of Hoosiers.”
In response to Stephanopoulos’ question, I’ll take that as a yes. Because elsewhere in the interview, when Pence was asked whether he favored protecting gays under the civil rights laws, he said: “I will not push for that. That’s not on my agenda.”
Bluster. For any cornered politician, this is the third standard tactic. Pence harrumphed about “this avalanche of intolerance that’s been poured on our state…spread all over the country by many in the media.”
Blame “the media,” blah blah. But somehow Pence failed to mention all the groups and businesses that have voiced “intolerance” about the new law – including the Indiana-based NCAA, the Indiana-based Salesforce, Disciples of Christ, GenCon, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce (which says “the law is entirely unnecessary”), Eli Lilly (a big Indiana employer which says that “discriminatory legislation is bad for Indiana”), and the Indiana-based Angie’s List. The latter firm’s CEO, Bill Oesterle, has put his expansion plans “on hold,” because he is “hugely disappointed in what this bill represents.” By the way, Oesterle was campaign manager for Pence’s Republican predecessor.
Nevertheless Pence roared, “We have been under an avalanche of intolerance, and I’m not going to take it lying down!” But hey. When you collude with extremists, and you get busted for it, and your defense is tissue-thin, all you’ve got left is the bluster.