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Sympathy for the Pence
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's been a few months since the calamitous "Indiana Spring" of 2015 has mercifully passed and though every possible aspect of the Mike Pence/RFRA debacle has been debated and ridiculed, it's perhaps time to take a look at the debris after the storm and see what's left. God knows there's no point in dissecting Mike Pence's future as a national politician any more — while he probably stands a reasonable chance of getting another term as Indiana's most unlikeable and easiest-lampooned governor of all time, those "Pence for President" dreams got axe-murdered approximately 30 seconds after his appearance on the George Stephanopolous show. National punchlines rarely do well on the campaign trail (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush excepted), especially when they carry as much plutonium around with them as the venerable Hoosier politician does. It's like Howard Dean's pterodactyl scream times 100.
And I know that it's way too early to make any kind of reliable prognostication about Indiana's governor race in 2016, but if — and it's a big if — Punchline Mike Pence faces off against the criminally mistreated and unjustly maligned Superintendent of Schools Glenda Ritz, my gut instinct is that Pence will win, and Indiana will have to deal with another round of national ridicule on election night. No matter how hard she tries, no matter how qualified she is, no matter how savvy a campaigner she turns out to be, Ritz will always be fighting the perception that she's a victim, and in the long run, Hoosiers will prefer the punch line over the victim. It's manifestly unfair and more than a little cruel, but Ritz ultimately will be saddled with too much baggage to sustain a winning campaign. To tell her side of the story will just require too much time and too much public education and Hoosiers simply won't sit still for it.
Again, it's not what I want and I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid the second national story in 2016, after the Presidential race results are in, will begin with "And in Indiana . . . " And Hoosier citizens will again get besieged by phone calls from out-of-state friends saying, "What is going on there??!?" and the grimacing and sad shaking-of-the-head will begin again.
Anyway, in looking back at Indiana's own peculiar version of "March Madness," there's one aspect of the story that I think got under-reported, and it's an aspect that makes me feel a bit of grudging sympathy for Mike Pence. After the initial outrage, after the disastrous TV appearance, after the attempted appeasement, you could just see in Pence's body language and on his face, at every turn, an overwhelming bewilderment. The look was unmistakable: My God, What has happened to the world I know? As entertaining as it was to watch Pence nearly herniate himself in back pedaling away from the mess he created, it was almost painful to see him look so confused, so nakedly vulnerable. The world had changed, completely, overnight, irrevocably, and he had absolutely no clue about the new landscape.
The sudden acceptance of gay marriage in the United States is so surprising to me that I wonder if there's any modern equivalent. Just a year ago I wrote about the inevitability of gay marriage, but even then I didn't image how much momentum the cause would continue to gain, especially here, in Indiana, in so short a time. I know it's a long way from becoming national law, but the general acceptance of the idea is something I didn't expect to see for a number of years. It's like that analogy that Malcolm Gladwell used in his book "The Tipping Point" about moments of critical mass — just when you're wondering if it's going to snow, it's raining hard and about 35 degrees, suddenly the temperature drops four degrees and you've got a blizzard. All at once.
So while I got a healthy and pleasant rush of schaudenfreude in watching the governor squirm and get exactly what he deserved in his RFRA nightmare, I also felt a contrary bit of empathy for the old guy. No matter how rancid I find him politically, I understand completely how it feels to suddenly find the world to be an incomprehensible place. Getting old will do that to you; everything seems to move about 10 steps faster than your capacity to process the changes.
I'm sure Pence thought that the governor gig in Indiana was going to be a piece of cake. He probably thought, Hell, I'm a Republican, a career politician, this will be easy; he probably thought that his 30 years as a public servant meant that he was entitled to some special retirement award, like a gold watch, but instead of a gold watch he was given the governorship. So easy: get elected to your first term in a landslide, make a few family value speeches, rack up the approval ratings, get some traction from the National Party and maybe attract some flattering (though unrealistic) VP talk from a party desperate for a gray-haired, Midwestern, mortician-looking candidate, win a second term, do nothing, retire. And when his term comes to an end his supporters will lionize him by saying he "stuck to his guns."' Indiana.
But all that's gone now. Thanks to a brutal week in March, Pence is in for a rough re-election, though, again, I think the old guy will probably pull it off and become the lamest lame duck in the state's history. The world will take note for a few, brief, ridiculing seconds and then move on. The brave new world, the locomoting world, the world that's oblivious to the bewilderment of those stuck in its distant past.