Has the fight over Indiana’s RFRA set the GOP up for failure?

Over the course of this and last week, Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act has set the nation’s hair ablaze as commentators and pundits on the left compete with one another in order to adopt the most disingenuously indignant posture over this relatively commonplace law.

I’ve written about why Indiana’s version of this law is not particularly different from the 19 other state-level RFRAs or the federal version. I have also remarked on the fact that a number of individuals, primarily religious minorities, have RFRAs to thank for the safeguarding of their religious sensibilities. I’ve written that these laws are not designed to facilitate discrimination, and those who say they are cannot cite a precedent because none exists. Finally, I have noted that familiar and contrived campaigns like these that are centered on identity politics burn hot and bright for a time, but they rarely have an impact on a presidential election that cannot be explained more convincingly by fundamental political conditions like war and peace, the state of the economy, and incumbency.

But not everyone on the right agrees the present fight over Indiana’s RFRA law is worth the cost. Some see conservative-friendly corporations like Angie’s List to NASCAR running away from Indiana lest they be tagged a bigoted organization and suffer commensurate financial hardship as a result. Some have noted that Gov. Mike Pence lit a fire under the political press and has become this week’s Rudy Giuliani. For the media, there is now no higher priority than seeking out Republican presidential aspirants and forcing them to either denounce Pence or to couple themselves with this RFRA law. It is a familiar dance, but it is also a fruitful one from a liberal’s perspective. Could the disproportionate tempest in the press sparked by this law be a prelude to a much longer, more involved campaign to discredit the GOP ahead of 2016? Has the now defunct “war on women” evolved into “the war on love,” or some other preposterous contrivance aimed at whipping up the lowest common denominators among us? And is the GOP falling for what is essentially a distraction from its core message?

Radio host, author, and columnist Michael Graham takes the latter view on this kerfuffle, and is asking if the GOP was led by the nose into a fight that it did not choose and cannot win. Below, he responds to my columns on this subject in detail:

“Can’t anybody here play this game?”—Casey Stengel, who managed the 1962 Mets to a 120-loss season.

Watching the “Indiana GOP Self-Immolation Show,” I thought once again of Casey.

The legendary manager has come to mind quite a lot lately: When Rudy Giuliani led Republicans up the “Obama’s not a real American!” hill; Listening to the vicious, compassionless response of Republicans to the shooting deaths of unarmed black men.

And again, four days into a GOP media-cycle pounding reminiscent of those delivered by a young Mike Tyson, I am reminded why I am a Casey Stengel Republican:

It’s a game. It’s called “politics.” If you don’t want to play it, and play it to win—stay off the field.

I understand the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I understand that the people attacking it either don’t understand it or are lying about it. I understand that logic is on the GOP’s side.

But what difference does that make to swing and independent voters who are watching a non-stop, cable-news info-mercial that could be entitled: “Why GOP Means “Gays Out—Period!;”

While rational conservatives write reasonable columns explaining how RFRA is “a shield, not a sword,” the media have Republicans in a headlock and are beating them in the face as they shout “Explain this, you homophobic bigots!”

And for what? To defend religious liberty? As RFRA defenders keep saying, only this law impacts a few cases. Is it really worth the steady stream of “Republicans hate gay people” press that will be flowing until Election Day 2016?

Some conservatives say the fight is worth it. Who cares about the hundreds of millions of dollars in negative earned media—we stood up for principle. Except you haven’t. At least, not in Indiana.

Gov. Pence and the GOP legislature is rushing to amend their RFRA law, using the assumption that the critics were right and the law does legalize anti-gay discrimination. So after days of being beaten up by the media for a false charge of discrimination, the GOP’s answer is to confess to the crime and write a new law.

There’s a word for this, people: LOSING.

The question arises: Why does the GOP keep picking fights (government shutdown, executive amnesty, ObamaCare, RFRA, etc) it can’t win? Some Republicans are particularly frustrated by the Indiana mess because they believe, as Noah Rothman put it, “this is a good hill to defend.”

Sorry, Noah. The problem isn’t the hill. It’s the defenders. The GOP sucks at politics—sucks so badly that there is NO hill they can take, NO fight with the Democrats they can win.

If politics were a real battlefield, the GOP would be the Iraqi army. Yes, it’s that bad.

The “circle the wagons” GOP answer is “We control Congress and a huge number of governorships and local legislatures.” But these aren’t prizes the GOP fought for and captured. They’re gifts from the Democrats’ radical president. His decision to govern via hyperpartisanship has sent some voters into the GOP’s arms. But in 2016, Barack Obama won’t be on the ballot.

On foreign policy, Republicans are so politically inept they have to rely on foreign leaders like Netanyahu to make their case. On domestic policy, the GOP is irrelevant—even with control of the House and Senate.

Mike Pence taking on the Democrat/Media axis over gay rights is like sending in St. Mary’s School for Girls to take on Seattle Seahawks. The results were painfully predictable.

Also predictable is that a political movement dedicated to self-congratulatory ideology over political outreach is destined to fail. “Screw the voters—we’re right!” is a loser’s rallying cry.

Does this mean conservatives shouldn’t have principles? Of course not. But when your politicians are as bad as ours (reminder: at one point in 2012, the GOP front-runners were Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain) we can’t afford them.

Smart and principled starts with “smart.” For example, it would have been smart for Republicans to spend time and money highlighting the cases of small business owners who were punished by the state for not participating in same-sex marriages that violated their faith. Design and execute a media strategy that forced Democrats to defend taking away a little old grandmother’s flower shop because she’s a believing Christian.

But where is the political strategy? Where’s the skilled politician making these Democrat bullies squirm for beating up on Granny? They don’t exist.

Instead we’ve got the Rush Limbaugh brigades: “Screw ‘em—they’re too stupid to understand anyway. Just pass the RFRA, shut down the government, call Obama a Communist—which he IS, by the way!!—and if the American voters are too dumb to understand how right we are, that’s THEIR problem!”

Hey, GOP dummies: The game is to get more Americans to vote for us than for the other guy. That means we want more people to like us. Doing things that make us look like a jerk to the average voter—like the current RFRA fight—don’t help.

To paraphrase the great American political scientist, Dean Wormer of Faber College: “Angry, humorless and off-putting is no way to go to the polls, son.”

Update (Ed): Rush Limbaugh emailed me a few moments ago, strongly objecting to Michael Graham’s characterization of his arguments:

The only problem with this excerpt is that I have never said one word of it. Not even close to one word of it. 

Graham uses the phrase “Rush Limbaugh brigades,” but the implication is clear enough. And Rush rejects it entirely. Given what I know of Rush and the way he puts arguments together, he’s right to object.