Boy, have the Republicans got themselves into a tangle over this religious freedom bill that the Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, just signed into law. It allows folk to forgo doing any kind of business that may run counter to their religious convictions. Own a bakery and abhor alternative lifestyles? No need to serve that gay couple ordering a wedding cake.
There are already 19 states with similar laws, reflecting the number of states under Republican control today. The Arkansas legislature passed a religious freedom law on Tuesday. Heeding the uproar, Governor Asa Hutchinson has asked state lawmakers to make changes before he signs it.
The blowback against Indiana, and now Arkansas, has been fierce. Companies, celebrities and even the governments of some other (Democrat-led) states rose up to condemn a law they say will have the effect of giving businesses licence to discriminate against gays.
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, led the protest. Even sporting leagues like the National Basketball Association leapt into the fray. Mr Hutchison came under pressure to veto the Arkansas bill from Walmart, based in the state.
All this seems to have stunned Mr Pence. Saying he would never condone discrimination, he has now vowed to work with his legislature to change the law. How he achieves that remains to be seen. Did he see the furore coming? He did not. Which is why this is so interesting. It shows just how far the pendulum has swung in this country towards tolerance of gays and of gay marriage. It is a cultural and demographic sea-change seen particularly among young Americans – including young Republicans.
Heaven forfend that a Republican presidential hopeful might fall on the wrong side of history on this. The national party, moreover, has warned that its chances of winning in 2016 will suffer if Republicans allow themselves once more to get embroiled in culture war issues. Topping the danger list are reproductive and gay rights and the conservative campaign to resist all laws that offend them on religious grounds, such as being told to include birth control in health policies offered to workers.
So what did the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz do this week? Why, they rushed right in and spoke up for Mr Pence and the Indiana law. This is especially disappointing in the case of Mr Bush. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn’t in fact love the law. But in that case, he is defending it for political strategic reasons as cynical as they are cowardly.
Mr Bush knows that to become the Republican flag-bearer in 2016, he must first win the state-by-state nominating contests where the conservatives have a disproportionate influence. But he has also said that shifting to the right in the primary contests can spell disaster later, when moderates must be won over. This is the Bermuda Triangle of the Republican Party. Mitt Romney flew straight into it in 2012, pandering to the right on immigration during the primary races and finding it impossible to rediscover his more moderate bearings when facing Barack Obama in the general election later.
And this is also why Democrats are smiling from ear to ear this week. They have no such dilemma. Hillary Clinton standing up for the Indiana law? I don’t think so.