Gay marriage gambit turns into a wreck for GOP

This was a week when the Republican Party found yet another way to create a public relations pile-up.

It happened because Republican legislatures in conservative states – first Indiana, then Arkansas – passed bills that would permit private citizens to withhold services from same-sex couples who want to marry. In their zeal, the legislators caused their party’s bandwagon to collide with itself at the politically worst possible place – the intersection of the GOP’s evangelical and socially conservative power base and the party’s message that it can deliver economic prosperity.

When collisions happen at this intersection, nobody wins. That’s because influential stakeholders – including national convention planners, large corporations and chambers of commerce – will turn on a dime at the first sign of this de facto discrimination, and they will pound the same Republican pols whose campaigns they have funded until they relent. And the pols will yield, every time.

That’s what happened this week, first in Indiana, then in Arkansas. In Indiana, the very conservative Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who’d built a reputation as a smart, principled pol, repeatedly stumbled, bumbled and fumbled on national television. Mainly because his top priority seemed to be not offending his political base, which opposes gay and lesbian marriages.

On March 26, the governor signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law in a rather odd victory celebration – odd in that it was closed to the press, as if maybe nobody would notice it. The bill seemed to have been carefully crafted to provide a way for private citizens such as florists, bakers and photographers to withhold services from same-sex couples seeking homosexual marriages.

Beaming over Pence’s left shoulder as he signed the bill was Eric Miller, head of socially conservative lobbying group called Advance America. Miller helped enact last year’s ban on gay marriages (later ruled unconstitutional) and then did the same for this new bill.

It was similar to one President Bill Clinton signed into law and 19 other states enacted. Except Indiana’s bill, which carefully makes no mention of sexual preference, added a new provision that seemed to protect private individuals or concerns if they choose to withhold a service on the grounds that it would significantly “burden” their religious faith. Also, they would get this legal protection even if no government entity is involved in a complaint.

Miller’s Advance America website celebrated the bill signing by asserting: “Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!” Miller said the new law would help protect “Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!”

Meanwhile, Pence, who has often lavished praise upon Miller and his group, maintained the new law doesn’t discriminate.

On ABC News’ Sunday-morning program “This Week,” George Stephanopoulos repeatedly asked Pence to give a yes or no answer to questions about whether Indiana’s new law would allow a florist to withhold flowers from a same-sex couple’s wedding. Pence refused but insisted the law doesn’t discriminate.

By Tuesday, even the Indianapolis-based National Collegiate Athletic Association was suggesting it might yank its basketball championship out of the state. Indianapolis’ Republican mayor and conservative newspaper were demanding Pence and the legislature “fix” the new law. And Pence relented and vowed to get the law he’d just signed fixed. But he repeatedly blamed the whole debacle on the national news media for misunderstanding the decency of the new law.

Meanwhile, down in Arkansas, a wisp of good news finally emerged, just as it seemed Arkansas was rushing to replicate the Indiana nightmare. After Arkansas’ legislature approved a bill much like Indiana’s and after Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson put out word he’d sign it into law Wednesday – something different (see also: not-dumb) happened.

Maybe it was seeing Pence’s pitiful pratfalls on national TV. And maybe it was that Walmart, the mega-corporation based in Arkansas, issued a statement warning the Arkansas’ bill “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion” Walmart values.

Hutchinson stunned the political bookies by sending the bill back to the legislature for some rewrite and rethink. Or maybe just to make it read more like the one Bill Clinton signed as president.

Whatever. After that wreck of a week Republicans just caused themselves in Indiana, even a mere teachable moment began to look like a buzzer-beating Final Four slam-dunk.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.