Pence, a social conservative and rumored GOP long shot for president, sure isn’t suffering from lack of name recognition after the firestorm over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. What’s surprising, or perhaps suspicious, is how he and his staff seemed completely unprepared for it.
[A note before we move on: I am not going to comment on nor offer an opinion on the law itself. There’s plenty of that happening elsewhere.]
The new law, passed by the Indiana state Legislature and signed by Pence in late March, immediately sparked controversy, with supporters claiming it protects against government interfering with one’s religious practices and detractors insisting it opens the door to discrimination, particularly against gays.
Pence took point in commenting on the law. Almost no one thinks he did it well. A particularly awkward example was an interview on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Not only did Pence arrive with inadequate talking points—he seemed interested only in blaming the Internet for the backlash—he seemed completely unprepared for a simple yes-or-no question. Let’s go to the transcript:
STEPHANOPOULOS: And so yes or no, if a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?
PENCE: George, this is, this is where this debate has gone, with, with misinformation and frankly--
STEPHANOPOULOS: It’s just a question, sir. Question, sir. Yes or no?
PENCE: Well, well, this, there’s been shameless rhetoric about my state and about this law and about its intention all over the Internet. People are trying to make it about one particular issue. And now you’re doing that, as well.
There’s more, several minutes worth, and it’s painful to watch regardless where you stand on the issue. Pence simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer what should have been the first rehearsal query any media trainer would have posed.
As the melee unfolded, Pence waffled on questions about whether the law should be changed. One moment, he insisted it would remain as-is. The next, he agreed there was a need to “clarify” it. Then he’d switch back. And switch again. (Eventually, the Legislature passed a revision that would added some protections based on sexual orientation, and Pence signed it before the ink was dry.)
Incredibly, when asked by a reporter whether he anticipated the public backlash, Pence said, “Heavens, no.” Which means Pence is either stunningly naïve, deliberately disingenuous, has the worst PR advisors ever, or he’s a disciple of that misguided notion, “Any publicity is good publicity.”
It’s hard to believe anyone can reach the governorship without good communication instincts and a solid PR team. Could it be, then, that Pence thought a brief episode of turmoil might be worth it to raise his name recognition among voters outside Indiana?
That’s entirely speculative on my part. If that was indeed Pence’s motivation, he wouldn’t be the first to play that hand. But it’s a dangerous hand, one that flies in the face of open, honest communication, and one that rarely, if ever, serves the player or the public well in the end.