Governor Mike Pence and the Indiana Legislature have likely done a favor for the Republican Party and its presidential candidates.
No matter what you think of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which critics said would allow business to discriminate against gays and lesbians, the national backlash against it from business and other institutions shows how costly such actions can be.
Since all the 2016 Republican candidates lined up in support of the legislation, which was signed by a governor who himself is still a sort-of maybe contender for the nomination, why is it good for them?
They got an early reminder: The positions that play well in a small bubble of party politics and on Fox News may go wrong when the larger November 2016 electorate is exposed to them.
The only way a politician can get a party’s nomination is to be fluent in the language the party speaks. For Republicans today, this means Christians in the U.S. are an at-risk minority, and Obamacare is to blame for rising health costs and lost coverage, and the economy is a disaster, and Benghazi is a scandal that has been covered up. And so on.
Those statements are false.
Any Republican presidential candidate who pointed any of this out would be out of contention in no time. But politicians who live in the bubble, and no longer even recognize that they’re in it, also face a big risk: They lose track of the reality outside it.
Even if few people vote based on a single issue, perceptions of a candidate’s extremism do matter in general elections, and social issues have been a minefield in recent elections.
Republicans are lucky that no one is going to remember the Indiana tempest by November 2016, especially now that Pence has called for changes in the law by week’s end to appease critics.
Yes, the candidates still have to survive a nomination fight in which many activists feel the same way they did back when Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom was controversial. But they have to know when it’s time to thread the needle between their campaign oratory and real-world policies.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.