For conservatives -- and especially social conservatives -- this is what the ongoing fight over a religious freedom law in Indiana boils down to: The government is already in too many aspects of my life. They can't make me do things that go against my deeply held religious beliefs.
For virtually everyone else, this is what the Indiana fight looks like: Republicans are pushing a law that could codify discrimination against gays and lesbians.
It doesn't take a political whiz to see the problem there.
In order to change/adapt what the GOP brand means to the average, non-base voter, the 2016 Republican candidates would do well for the controversy over the Indiana law to disappear from the national news roughly, well, yesterday. But for 2016ers looking to score points with a socially conservative base in advance of the Iowa caucuses or the South Carolina primary, say, double and tripling down on the importance of standing strong on religious freedom in the face of backlash is a very sound strategy. (In the 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses, 57 percent of attendees described themselves as "born again or evangelical Christians"; 65 percent said the same in the South Carolina primary in that same election.)
And so, the likes of Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have every reason to continue to speak out about the fight happening in Indiana. And, they are doing just that.
An email from top Jindal adviser Timmy Teepell this morning touted the fact that "Governor Jindal will do three radio interviews today to talk about the fight for religious liberty" and noted, "Governor Jindal was one of the first potential 2016 candidates to talk about the fight for religious liberty when he gave a speech at The Reagan Library in February of 2014. A copy of the speech can be found here." And on Wednesday in Iowa, Cruz had this to say: "We're seeing in the news right now a lot of noise because the state of Indiana bravely stood up and passed a law defending religious liberty. I’ll say this: I will commend the state of Indiana for doing the right thing."
The evolution of others, like Jeb Bush, who are keeping a close eye on the possibility of being the general election nominee -- Bush has famously/infamously said you have to be willing to "lose" the primary in order to win the general --has been telling. On Monday, Bush told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt that "once the facts are established, people aren't going to see this as discriminatory at all." On Wednesday, according to reporting by the New York Times, Bush was singing a different song to a group in Silicon Valley. "By the end of the week, I think Indiana will be in the right place, which is to say that we need in a big diverse country like America, we need to have space for people to act on their conscience, that it is a constitutional right that religious freedom is a core value of our country," Bush reportedly told the audience. "But we shouldn't discriminate based on sexual orientation. So what the State of Indiana is going to end up doing is probably get to that place."
The reality of national politics today is that when Republicans are talking about social issues -- and this debate has, for most people, become one over rights for gays and lesbians -- they lose. Poll after poll shows that voters outside of the Republican base disagree with the party's accepted stances on abortion and gay marriage. The more that Republicans talk about social issues, the harder it will be for the eventual nominee to portray him or herself as a different kind of Republican to the undecided voter.
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes covering politics knows that the public writ large is never going to agree with one candidate or even one party on everything. Attempting to adjust every view you have to fit what you think the public wants is a recipe for disaster; it will almost certainly leave that public convinced you believe in nothing. (See Al Gore circa 2000.)
At the same time, the best politicians understand how to spend as much of their time as possible talking about areas of agreement with the public and as little time as possible talking about places where they know the public isn't with them. This religious freedom debate is a prime example of a place where the people who want to hear Republicans talk more about it are already with them and will be with the GOP nominee no matter what. The more the Jindals and Cruzes of the GOP political world spend defending Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and talking about the critical import of religious freedom, the less they are talking about Obama, the economy and foreign policy -- a trio of issues on which their views are shared by a much wider swath of the likely 2016 electorate.
Put simply: Every day the Indiana debate is front and center is a bad day for the eventual Republican nominee.