Toward the end of covering the 2012 election, I started to tell friends about the same daydream: Mitt Romney, locked in a room for a week, just sharing opinions about things with no awareness of how events transpired outside. Just a week’s version of honesty, because there was nothing to incentivize being so changeable. Campaigns move pretty fast, after all, and the inviolable pledge of one week becomes the fatal anchor of the next.
As the American political climate moves more or less into a state of Permanent Campaign (Romney ran for president for five years, Rand Paul has for four), this vacillation trend will probably only accelerate among the nation’s more callow candidates. While even the most principled candidate waffles eventually, we’ve been gifted a real brace of chickenshits in the GOP primary. And nothing’s thrown them into the spotlight quite like Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s chickenshit volte-face on his own economic smear-the-queers bill. All that’s left is for you to wonder who has the most potential for blundering numbskullery, but, in a pinch, let’s say it’s Scott Walker.
A little background: Last week Pence signed into law a Religious Freedom Restoration Act for Indiana. The first RFRA was a federal one signed in 1993 by President Clinton, and they have since spread to 20 states, and they are probably all unnecessary given the First Amendment and Civil Rights Acts. Still — perhaps because of the existence of the First Amendment and Civil Rights Acts — they all seem like an anodyne gesture of bipartisan comity, so they keep getting rubber stamped. Unfortunately, Pence and Indiana Republicans capitalized on a decades-long manipulation of “religious freedom” as an excuse to exclude and punish groups they see as immoral or repugnant, leveraging religion’s perquisites to create a bubble of legitimated pre-Civil Rights Era prejudice (and tax avoidance). Only Pence and company went too far: Indiana’s RFRA didn’t just protect religious intolerance from government interference but actually empowered business to discriminate against immoral other folk without risk of civil rights lawsuits. Only, when pressed even to answer yes or no as to whether Pence had just signed a bill that legalized religious discrimination of gays, he sputtered and retreated. Typically, the Onion did the best job of anyone when it came to nailing him to a wall.
Here’s the problem: Almost all the 2016 GOP presidential candidates ran onto the bridge to defend Pence and Indiana Republicans loud enough to be heard in Iowa — then Pence dynamited the thing, sending them crashing to the canyon floor like Wile E. Coyote after holding up two signs reading “I ♥ Jesus” and “Eep.” Each championed the Indiana bill not as discriminatory toward LGBT citizens, which it transparently was, but rather some last desperate bulwark between universally oppressed Christians and predatory gay customers backed up by big gay government. Pence fucked it up.
On Thursday, he signed into law a new RFRA that allowed Christians (technically it refers to religious people, but come on, man) to act in accordance with their conscience except where doing so would result in discriminating during transactions with the public on the basis of sexual orientation. In other words, how we already interpret the First Amendment and Civil Rights Acts, except if you could pass them today and get a lot of credit with the evangelical GOP base for writing them.
Certainly some of the conservative bodies down in the canyon are happy to remain at such a low level. Mike Huckabee doesn’t care. Ted Cruz, who has calculated that his only chance is somehow running as even more of a religious fundamentalist than a former preacher like Mike Huckabee, is just fine. Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum is fiiiiiiine. Rick Santorum’s granddad or dad or some ancestor came to this country to literally dig coal 23 hours a day except for an hour break to eat coal and be beaten and gnawed on by Wendigos just so his descendent could one day consider someone like Mike Pence a homosymp pansy. This good for them and immaterial for us, because none of them stands a fucking chance unless Foster Freiss starts dropping eight figure donations on Rick again. Meanwhile, everyone else is stuck holding the bag for Mike Pence, while he scampers off and a fellow traveler like Republican Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson knuckles under to Wal-Mart, pins his change of heart on his son’s activism and refuses to sign an RFRA like Indiana’s.
The guys left holding the bag are the ones to watch. Take Marco Rubio. This is someone who tried to parlay the “transformative Hispanic Republican candidate” rhetoric about him into an immigration reform bill that the Tea Party that elected him immediately loathed. He’s since abandoned his own bill. On Fox, commenting on Pence’s bill, he issued a self-contradictory statement, like he was participating in a tenth grade exercise on “create a concept and its own antithesis.” Basically: people shouldn’t be discriminated against for being gay, but, on the other hand, businesses shouldn’t be prohibited from discriminating against people for being gay. Something, something, freedom. In conclusion, America is a land of contrasts.
Meanwhile, speaking to Silicon Valley swells, Jeb Bush offered a slicker version of Rubio’s comments, arguing that “we need to have space for people to act on their conscience, that it is a constitutional right that religious freedom is a core value of our country,” but, “we shouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation.” Even the big hitters he was throwing word-softballs to didn’t know which way he was facing. Anyway, something, something, freedom. In conclusion, America is a land of contrasts. The difference between Bush and Rubio is that Rubio will not eventually have hundreds of millions of dollars to almost literally paper over a mess like this statement or his earlier defense of Pence.
Rand Paul, perhaps exhausted from already compromising his other previously avowed principles, had his managers claim he was “out of pocket” and couldn’t comment while on vacation, despite already commenting on other issues while on vacation.
[This space intentionally left blank for Rick Perry.]
Which brings us to the really interesting candidate to watch, Scott Walker, who greets each new week with as much of a blank slate attitude as Rick Perry but without the natty eyewear or charisma. He’s already fully or partially flip-flopped on a pathway to citizenship, political donations from gaming companies, abortion rights, ethanol mandates, right-to-work laws and common core. But while previously seeing no need for an RFRA law in Wisconsin because of “a healthy balance” between an anti-discrimination statute and defense-of-marriage legislation, a Walker spokesperson supported the Indiana RFRA. By Wednesday, the night before Pence’s signed, legally binding flip-flop, Walker was trying to downplay the backlash to the Indiana legislation as the product of “people who are chronically looking for ways to be upset about things instead of really looking at what it is.” Funnily enough, he invoked the same First Amendment that makes almost every aspect of RFRA legislation irrelevant by adding, “I believe protecting religious freedom is inherent in our state constitution. Heck, it’s inherent in our U.S. Constitution,” which makes you wonder who really is chronically looking for ways to be upset about things.
Doubtless Walker’s camp will release a quiet, waffling statement about Indiana’s new RFRA, one that will be overshadowed by the existential doom for the United States and prospective annihilation of Israel offered by the Obama Administration’s prospective nuclear deal with Iran. Walker has already claimed that he would end any such deal on Day One of his presidency, even if European signatories wished to maintain it, which shows he doesn’t know how treaties work but that he can be decisive in spite of that anyway. But that’s the point. You can beat a war drum hard enough on Friday to make everyone forget the tune from earlier in the week, at least through the weekend.
With any luck, though, we’ll come back to that RFRA statement — and probably many future ones besides. Despite impressively winning three elections in four years, Walker still appears extremely uncomfortable outside the Wisconsin borders, with policy collapsing into gibberish any time he ventures past platitude. One gets the sense that a week spent alone in a room would see Scott Walker tell himself the same litany of stories three different ways, each time certain it was the first he’d mentioned them. Iran negotiations have likely only temporarily interrupted a true ping-ponging of public struggle with thought. Right now, he leads a Fox News poll of Republican voters, of all prospective 2016 Republican candidates.
Scott Walker is so regularly clueless that he’d tell voters that he’s gay if someone put that on the schedule. Then, if his aides put it on the schedule, he’d vote against himself.
God preserve us.