The GOP presidential field had Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s back. Then came the backlash, and then the back down. Pence defended, but then retreated from, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act he originally signed, ultimately signing a “fix” after a firestorm broke out that threatened his state’s economy.
Too bad the GOP can’t sign a fix. The party is far more divided now than when Mitt Romney lost his bid for president and sullen Republicans blamed his inelegant jerk rightward in the primary for his defeat.
The gulf between social conservatives and establishment Republicans is not closing, it’s growing larger and louder, just in time for the 2016 presidential campaign.
Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and the perception it would discriminate against homosexuals, was immediately devoured by big business, big sports, electoral demographic realities and the definition of tolerance in 2015. Many in the party know that tension, and the burgeoning support for same-sex marriages, is not going away.
“Republicans have to fix this and fix it fast. It has been a complete disaster,” said John Feehery, a GOP consultant who served as top aide to several Republican congressional leaders.
Playing to the primary electorate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush joined other potential GOP presidential candidates in defending the law when Pence was under fire, but Bush then changed his tune at a Silicon Valley event a day later, telling the pro-business crowd a consensus approach would have been better. At that point key interests like Wal-Mart and the NBA had weighed in against it. Some knew to avoid the issue, like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who disappeared into a media blackout to spend time with family before his expected campaign announcement.
On the issue of gay marriage, most Americans accept the 1990s have been left for dead. But tell that to the armies of social conservatives not only pushing for more RFRAs across the nation but who specifically urged forceful pushback to the pushback.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, blasted the Fortune 500 companies he said are “running shamelessly to endorse the radical gay marriage agenda over religious liberty.” He is courting evangelical voters as the first official candidate for 2016, trying to get ahead of other social conservatives. Cruz doesn’t have much of a chance of winning, but will be bent on pushing the party rightward before the general election.
Whit Ayres, pollster to likely presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, admitted at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast: “We are headed to a point where a political candidate who is perceived as anti-gay at the presidential level will never connect with people under 30 years old.”
It’s not clear whether that point is next year or in 2020, but writing off not only a generation of voters but possibly some of their parents as well is not what a party does if it wants to win.