Browstein: Pence’s Indiana Law Challenge Foreshadows GOP’s 2016 Problem

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

This week’s uproar over Indiana’s religious freedom bill is a microcosm of the challenges Republican leaders face in the nation’s changing cultural landscape, according to National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein.

Browstein argues in a National Journal piece that the Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s plight after signing the states’ “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” foreshadows the balancing act Republican candidates will have to walk — appeasing their social conservative wing while at the same time appealing to society as a whole.

Pence’s agonies underscore the challenge Republicans face reconciling the demands of their culturally conservative base with the evolving realities of an America steadily growing more diverse, secular, and tolerant. That widening gap may be the biggest obstacle to Republican hopes of recapturing the White House next year.

And while national security and the economy could be winners in the 2016 election for Republicans, Brownstein speculates that candidates’ dance with social issues could get complicated.

Yet with the Indiana religious-freedom law, Pence detonated what could be the biggest land mine facing his party in 2016: the sense that the GOP wants to reverse the cultural and demographic changes relentlessly remaking America. Multiple cultural issues—legalizing same-sex marriage, requiring businesses to serve gay customers, preserving gay rights in the workplace, mandating that employers include contraception in health insurance, legalizing undocumented immigrants, and maintaining legal abortion—all now sharply divide the parties and align the public along consistent demographic and ideological lines. (Though not a social issue, the debate over transitioning from fossil fuels to fight climate change splits the parties and public in very similar ways.)

Democrats, he explains appeal to the population that is most comfortable — and indeed push for — change. Republicans on the other hand are less malleable in this realm, Brownstein writes, saying the GOP relays on “older, blue-collar, religiously devout, and nonurban whites.”

 Pence’s struggles powerfully illustrate the difficulty of satisfying that disaffected base without projecting intolerance about big social changes that most Americans now accept. Even as Pence and his legislative allies moved toward a qualified retreat this week, virtually every major 2016 GOP contender felt compelled to support Indiana’s original bill.

What Brownstein describes as a Republican candidate “stampede” to support the Indiana law, he explains, shows “little flexibility the 2016 candidates feel to confront the GOP constituencies resistant to social change; even Jeb Bush, who has otherwise urged “respect” for same-sex couples, quickly fell into line over Indiana.”

He concludes that such resistance to change is not necessarily the recipe that will lead the GOP to the White House.

Those voters anchored the Republican dominance of the White House from 1968 through 1992. But while those traditionalist voters still underpin the GOP’s congressional strength, as the country has grown more diverse and culturally tolerant, they no longer represent a winning presidential race coalition. As Indiana shows, fear of alienating the voters who built their last durable presidential majority is preventing Republicans from taking steps that might help them construct a new one.