Tag Archives: State of the State

Political Gamesmanship from Indiana’s Governor?

As regular readers know, I posted a critical review of Governor Pence’s “State of the State” address. I certainly wasn’t alone–editorial writers and columnists around the state panned the presentation.

Critics focused particularly on the Governor’s unwillingness to endorse civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers, and his declaration that he “would not sign” a bill he considered insufficiently protective of religious liberty.  Like most critics of that pronouncement, I assumed that the lack of specifics–the Governor certainly didn’t say what provisions he would or would not accept–was tantamount to a veto threat.

We may be wrong—but not for reasons that are particularly comforting to those on either side of this debate.

Over the past two days, in separate conversations, people with broad political experience observing Indiana government have parsed the Governor’s language and arrived at a different conclusion. They point out that what Pence said was “I will not sign a bill…” He did not say “I will veto a bill.” Under Indiana law, the two are not the same thing.

In Indiana, when the state legislature passes a bill and sends it to the Governor,  there are three actions that Governor can take: 1)he can sign the bill, after which it becomes law; 2) he can veto the bill and send it back to lawmakers, who can then sustain or override the veto;  or 3) he can allow the bill to become law without his signature.

Politically, as everyone has pointed out, Pence is between a rock and hard place. His reelection prospects are utterly dependent upon the loyalty of his base of “Christian Soldiers.” He cannot afford to lose them, and they will leave at the slightest sign that Pence is softening his stance against equal rights for LGBT Hoosiers (and that would include any statement suggesting that he might allow an expansion of civil rights to become law).

Unfortunately for Pence, the number of these religious warriors is steadily declining, so he also needs significant support from the business wing of the Republican Party— and the business community is virtually unanimous in its support for civil rights expansion.

As the Democrats have pointed out (almost daily), Pence spent some 175 days avoiding taking a position—desperately trying to placate those on either side of the issue.

As one of the lawyers I talked with observed, the “non-position” communicated to the legislature in Pence’s State of the State address had two possible interpretations: 1) please don’t send me anything that will force me to decide what to do; or 2) if you send me a bill, I won’t sign it–but I won’t veto it, either. It will become law without my explicit endorsement.

The carefully noncommittal framing of the Governor’s statement in the State of the State was even more cowardly than it appeared in the moment, because it allows people on both sides to believe that he shares their concerns–that he is “with them.”

Disingenuous as it may have been, however, it gives some small measure of hope to those of us who want to see genuine civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers enacted in Indiana.

The State of the Governor

So–I poured a stiff drink and listened to Mike Pence deliver (his version of) the “State of the State.”

The word “smarmy” comes to mind.

There is much that might be said about this particular effort to put lipstick on a pig–the state he described is not one I recognized, nor the state that widely available data describes.  (My son, with whom I was watching, asked what grade I would give a student whose assignment was to deliver an accurate assessment of Indiana’s economic and social well-being and utterly failed to do so.)

There were some truly cringeworthy moments. The Governor, you may be surprised to learn, is “honored to be the Commander in Chief” of Indiana’s National Guard. At the conclusion of the forced, wooden speech—a pastiche of talking points and trite adages that met with dutiful but definitely not enthusiastic applause—he declaimed several lines from  “On the Banks of the Wabash.”

The part of the speech that the entire state was waiting for—the Governor’s position on extending state civil rights protections to LGBT Hoosiers—came at the end, and the Governor’s discomfort was palpable.

Pence assured everyone that he had “prayed” about the issue. (Clearly he hadn’t thought about it—but then, nothing in the speech gave evidence of much thought.) He reprised his “Hoosiers are good people who don’t discriminate” mantra and then engaged in a rambling discourse about the importance of religious liberty.

Bottom line: he won’t sign a bill that deprives religious folks of their ability to act on their beliefs everywhere—including at work.

There are two rather obvious responses to that declaration, one legal and one political.

First, the Constitution protects citizens’ right to believe anything. Full stop. It does not, however, protect an untrammeled right to act on the basis of religious doctrine. If my sincerely held religious belief requires me to sacrifice my first-born, or take drugs, or murder abortion doctors, or cheat nonbelievers, the government has the right to step in and say “too far.”

People of good will can disagree about the specific rules that are necessary to a fair and functioning society, but the Constitutions of the United States and Indiana have never been interpreted to privilege socially harmful behaviors simply because those behaviors are religiously motivated.

Second—and here, I admit to more than a bit of shadenfreude—Governor Pence has wedged himself firmly between a political rock and hard place.

The religious extremists who have always been his base will desert him in a heartbeat if he signs any bill that, in their eyes, “legitimizes” LGBT Hoosiers. Meanwhile, polls confirm that a solid majority of Indiana voters support adding “four words and a comma” to the state’s civil rights statute. And given this administration’s other blunders—its unremitting war on public education and  Glenda Ritz, the proposed “news bureau,” the lack of attention to Indiana’s crumbling infrastructure, etcetera etcetera—Pence simply does not have political capital sufficient to weather widespread disapproval of this particular culture war battle.

The wooden and forced delivery of last night’s platitudes suggests that the reality of his position is beginning to dawn on our “Christian soldier” Governor.