Parting With Pence

I first met Mike Pence when we were both Republican candidates for Congress. We both lost, and he transitioned to hosting a televised talk show on which his “good friend” (!) Sheila periodically appeared– I was then director of Indiana’s ACLU. (Our discussions usually made me question the “attended law school” entry on his biography…)

Later, when Pence was Governor, former students of mine who were working for state government shared stories of prayer meetings in the Governor’s office–along with their impression that the Governor was basically uninterested in–and incompetent at–governing.

In 2016, as Pence began running for re-election, I had one of those ubiquitous “Pence Must Go” yard signs; I still believe that–had Trump not tapped him to appeal to Evangelical voters, “Pious Pence” would have gone down in well-deserved flames. 

Credit where credit is due: his 2020 decision to uphold the Constitution (despite his very tenuous grasp of its provisions) was laudable and courageous. To the extent Pence has a place in history, that one virtuous decision secured it.

But let’s get real: Mike Pence was never going to be President. 

The best reaction I have read to his withdrawal from the race was written by Mike Leppert.

It was a long shot bid from the start, so, its early end was no surprise. “It’s become clear to me: This is not my time,” was the apt comment he delivered at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference. I cannot recall agreeing with him more strenuously, but for more reasons than I expect he intended.

Pence’s time ended shortly after the 2016 election, as did the era of his entire brand of conservativism. The GOP shift toward the populist, inarticulate, grievance-based platform of today cannot credibly tout the Holy Bible as its guide. It never really could, but the party’s hate-based rhetoric of today has made the hard-to-take-seriously piousness of the party’s past an unfunny joke. Pence never wavered from his version of Christianity, though.

Message discipline could be his greatest asset. No matter how bad the message might have been, he was always entirely committed to it. So much so, the repetitiveness of it eventually would damage his authenticity on the stump. However, this skill was a difference maker for the ticket in 2016. He was the only guy who could stick to the script in that chaotic campaign, and I firmly believe that without this contribution, Hillary Clinton wins. 

As Leppert points out, other than an ability to repeat talking points, Pence’s speechifying leaves much to be desired.

Admittedly, I already know that I am about to disagree with him before he makes a sound. But that’s part of the task at hand in political speech: to move people. 

Try to recall a time he did that. Ever. There’s not a moment when he moved a crowd from hostile to simply opposed; from opposed to interested in listening more; or, from neutral to agreeable. On his own side of the aisle, he only succeeded at choosing a narrative he already knew his audience would applaud. As a political writer and communication consultant present in Indiana for almost his entire career, I can attest that I’ve never heard anyone say, “You really should have heard that Pence speech last night!” 

It wasn’t only delivery–his policy positions set him far apart from the general public. 

I’ve written about it before, but governmental control of anyone’s body is not conservatism. It’s pushing totalitarianism. Conservatives adopted the pro-life mantra without reconciling its fundamental contradictions with their platform. And Pence was one of that duality’s leaders. Again, a knock on his authenticity that his supporters are unable to see. 

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act and his monumental mishandling of it, is the event that defines him for many Hoosiers. It was a law that discriminated, by design, against the LGBTQ community. Pence knew that as well as anyone, but he knew he couldn’t get away with just saying that. So, he didn’t. And it cost him twenty points in his approval rating at the time, points he never got back. 

Leppert reminds us that during his congressional career, Pence failed to pass a single bill–that he has no policy victories to tout. For that matter, Leppert says Pence has a tendency to cause more problems than he solves. 

His political brand is highlighted by a career’s worth of troubles, some of his own making, others through his willful acquiescence. His sins are now ironically unforgivable, by a crowd that has never been more in need of forgiveness. 

As Leppert says, pretensions aside, today’s GOP is no longer remotely conservative.

Ironically, the party’s base hates Pence for the single act of his career that actually was conservative.


Leadership Versus Pandering

Let me begin with a disclosure: Michael Leppert–whose recent blog post I will be echoing/quoting–is a personal friend. I have friends with whom I disagree from time to time, but thus far, I’ve found myself in agreement with Mike about pretty much everything–at least, everything political. (The joys of golf, not so much…)

If you don’t subscribe to his blog, you probably should.

Mike’s recent essay, reprinted in the Capital Chronicle, made a point pundits all too often fail to emphasize: the positions candidates take during their campaigns for public office tell us a lot about how they are likely to perform if they are successful.

I’ve made this poiint, albeit not as explicitly, by noting that candidates’ stances on reproductive liberty tell us a great deal about their willingness to use the power of government to impose their preferred beliefs on individuals who don’t share those beliefs. (Or, in the alternative, their willingness to impose the beliefs of the base to which they are pandering.) That’s why I take such positions into account even when the office for which the person is running is unlikely to have any say in the issue–it’s an important insight into the world-view of that candidate.

Of course, there are situations that do call for the exercise of state authority over private behavior. An obvious one is public health, and Leppert’s essay focuses on recent pronouncements by our odious U.S. Senator, Mike Braun, who is vacating that office because he now wants to be Indiana’s governor.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Mike Braun announced that he has co-authored the “Freedom to Breathe Act.” The federal legislation will ban the federal government’s ability to implement mask mandates for domestic air travel, public transit systems and schools.

Casey Smith reported for he Indiana Capital Chronicle last week on the bill Braun authored with three other Senate Republican colleagues. He first said in his Wednesday statement, “We’re not going to go back to the top-down government overreach we saw during COVID.”

Now, here’s the difference between Mike Leppert and Sheila Kennedy. When I read something as asinine as this, I just want to beat my head against the nearest wall and scream about logic and respect for science. Mike, to his credit, unpacks it:

This gubernatorial candidate has some kind of issue with “top-down” leadership? Even when he adds “overreach” to his canned statement, he is signaling how he would have led in 2020, or more aptly, how he would have chosen not to lead. Senator, in a crisis, “top-down” leadership is the name of the game. It’s the job for which you are running. And it is unlike filing dead-on-arrival legislation with three other members of congress looking only to “own the libs.”

After explaining what the purposefully mischaracterized studies actually say–that masks have demonstrably worked, but failure to comply with mask mandates caused thousands of unnecessary deaths–Mike writes that

There’s more to Braun’s statement. He added, “Congress needs to say forcefully that these ineffective, unscientific mask mandates are not coming back in any way, shape, or form.” Again, it’s not the masking, it’s the mandates that failed. Newsflash: Americans routinely resist governmental mandates. If there is a negative sociological companion to our culture’s independence, it often is our collective selfishness. Again, it’s not the masking, it’s our refusal to see how the selfless act of wearing one could help someone else.

But the pronouncement that Braun will not support mask mandates “coming back in any way, shape, or form,” telegraphs that if he faces a public health crisis as governor, he simply won’t lead through it.

It’s hard to disagree with the post’s conclusion:

The world learned plenty from COVID-19. The biggest lesson is to expect the unexpected. The next pandemic could be worse. It will likely be different. And Indiana has a contender for the office of governor who doesn’t want government to lead if or when it comes.

Indiana’s governor is already constitutionally weak by comparison to most states. We certainly don’t need a new one who wants to make it weaker.

Of course, let’s be honest. Braun doesn’t want to be a weaker governor–he wants to appeal to the ignorance and anti-science prejudices of the GOP base, in order to win the right to use the power of government selectively–to advance his own agenda.

That said, I have no idea what Braun’s agenda is, since we’ve seen nothing even approaching thoughtfulness or rational policy prescriptions from him during his single Senate term.

Apparently, like so many of today’s politicians, he just wants to be someone important, rather than wanting to do something constructive or useful.


The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite social science books is a 1993 “golden oldie”– The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz.  Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

The book was a methodical survey of the stories we tell ourselves about the American past, accompanied by copious data debunking them.

Think women were “purer” at the turn of the last century? How do you explain the substantial percentage who were already “with child” when they married? Did our brave and entrepreneurial forebears always “stand on their own two feet”? Coontz enumerates the numerous government programs–frontier mythology to the contrary– that they relied on. Etc.

Nostalgia may not be accurate, but it’s powerful. There’s no denying the attraction of a past viewed through rose-colored glasses. It always amuses me to hear my contemporaries longingly reciting the virtues of the 1950s; even when I was growing up at the time, I realized that life was really good if you were a middle-class white Christian male. Otherwise, not so much.

What made me think of Coontz’ book and my own formative years was a recent blog post by Michael Leppert, in which he made several astute observations about the politics of nostalgia.

“A sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time” seems to be a dominant part of the politics in charge today. The definition of “nostalgia” perfectly captures at least half of every debate in America right now…

Leppert traced that “sentimental yearning” to our current political scene.

The tedious breakdown of what happened in Alabama this week fascinates political nerds like me, but probably numbs the brains of most. We know, for example, that 30 percent of those voting were African-Americans which is three points higher than their share of the population there. We also know that they almost entirely voted for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones. Or did they vote against his bigoted Republican opponent? Either way, it tells a tale.

The tale is this: they voted for the future. They triumphed over people who voted for the past.

Leppert argues that this contest between tomorrow and yesterday will define the politics of 2018, and he notes that, in retrospect, the same thing probably could be said of the 2016 election.

“Make America Great Again” was a powerful sales pitch for a swath of folks who felt increasingly ignored. The mantra itself is asking for support for the way things used to be, as if that is possible. More importantly, it expresses a pessimism about our collective future that is hard to comprehend….

The past won in 2016 in many ways. So much of what we have seen in Washington this year comes from that perspective.  Throwback health and environmental policy early in the year was followed by an uncreative and backward looking tax bill.  All of it has been based on a sad view of tomorrow that couldn’t be more un-American.

I predict those who run on a platform of the future will sweep in 2018. Because forward is the only direction civilization ever truly goes.

As we get ready to “ring out” 2017–a year I’ll be happy to leave–I devoutly, passionately hope that Mike Leppert is right, that the future will win out over nostalgia for the way we never were.

My grandmother had a saying: “from your mouth to God’s ears…”


Contrary to Popular Belief

Contrary to Popular Belief is the title of the just-issued book based on Michael Leppert’s blog about Indiana government, for which I was honored to write the Foreward. As he does in his blog, Leppert offers a thoughtful and informed window into state government.

If timing is really everything, the book should hit the big time, because (among other things), there are numerous observations of Indiana’s Governor, who is now a Vice-Presidential candidate on the “Mango Mussolini” ticket. (I stole that description from John Oliver.)

There are insights into Pence’s contract with Real Alternatives, observations about the departure of Lieutenant Governor Ellspermann (arguably the only truly competent member of the administration), about the Governor’s efforts to prevent resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana, the “news” bureau disaster dubbed Pravda on the Prairie, the anti-abortion bill funeral requirement that sparked “Periods for Pence,” and of course, RFRA. Among others.

As I wrote in the Forward, Contrary to Popular Belief is an effort by one of Indiana’s most thoughtful, perceptive and informed observers to break through our cynicism, to avoid the constant hype and agitprop coming from entrenched interests, and to engage in what has come to be seen as an almost subversive act –actual communication about the ways in which our state and local governments function. Such communication, unfortunately, has become rare in our polarized age, especially when its focus is at the state level.

There are many valuable observations in the pages of this book, but there are three insights that I think are especially worth emphasizing. First, and perhaps most obvious, is a very personal and candid look at the reality of lobbying—a reality far removed from the popular image of nefarious characters in pin-striped suits working to subvert democracy in order to enrich their corporate masters. Such individuals undoubtedly exist, but they do not represent the legions of policy advocates who see their job as informing the legislative process and ensuring that contending points of view are adequately represented.

The second observation is related to the first: to the extent our democratic system fails to work, it is because all points of view are not equally or even adequately represented—and the reason that is so, the reason democratic institutions do not work as well as they should—is less likely to be the result of individual malfeasance than it is of systemic influences. One of the great virtues of this book is its author’s rejection of the impulse to paint “them” (insert your preferred nemesis here) as the source of all our problems, and his illumination of the ways in which our state and local governments actually work.

It turns out that there are many diligent and well-intentioned political actors on both sides of the aisle who actually want to improve the lives of Indiana citizens. Sometimes they agree on the best way to do so; sometimes they don’t. Making good policy, it turns out, is more complicated than simply electing those you believe to be the “good guys.”

And that brings me to what I personally believe is the most important insight Leppert shares: the fact that “the average person in Indiana now knows far too many trivial tidbits about high profile government types in Washington, D.C. and less and less about their state legislators, mayors and city councilors.” Americans—and Hoosiers—are dangerously ignorant of the governing systems within which they live and work, and the ways in which those institutions structure and affect their own daily lives.

The book is available on Amazon.