US & Canada

A messy political U-turn in Indiana

Indiana Governor Mike Pence Image copyright AP

The finance minister under the Sun King, Louis the fourteenth, came up with the best practical guide for taxation. He wrote: "The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing".

There is a similar skill required for the political U-turn. You need to perform it so elegantly and subtly that the passengers don't even notice that the steering wheel has been tugged. But outside the Indiana State House on Tuesday, there are black skid marks on the road and the distinct smell of burning rubber.

Having introduced the benign sounding - bland even - Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Indiana's Governor Mike Pence has found himself under sustained and ferocious attack - because it seemed as though this bill was a licence for the businesses and organisations of Indiana to be able to say to people 'you're gay, and with my new religious freedom protection, I am not going to serve you.' And so some shops around Indiana found it necessary to put up signs saying 'we serve everyone' to make clear that gays and lesbians would still be welcome in their shops.

Then some of America's biggest companies got involved. Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple said legislation like that mirrored the segregation laws of a bygone era. "These bills under consideration truly will hurt jobs, growth and the economic vibrancy of part of the country where a 21st century economy was once welcomed with open arms," he said.

Other large employers in the state had expressed their opposition to the bill, but he signed into law it was.

And pro gay groups picked out some of those standing side by side with Mr Pence when the bill was signed into law and noticed that many of them were, so called, traditional family values campaigners.

Now let us fast forward a week. And as I write the governor has just finished giving a rather extraordinary news conference in which he has blamed 'sloppy reporting', 'wilful misrepresentation' and lies for the furore.

Really? Did Tim Cook and all the people in the Apple public affairs team and press office not understand what the legislation was about? Ditto the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly? And what about all those other organisations and public bodies who have been raising serious concerns? Perhaps more damning, if Mr Pence though the law was being misrepresented why didn't he get out and say so from the get go. It would have taken him a nano-second to call a news conference. But the impression was allowed to persist, and doing great damage in the interim.

Mr Pence was asked at the news conference whether he had been surprised by all the fuss the legislation has provoked. He said he was amazed. Needless to say many remain unconvinced by that explanation.

All of which leaves broadly only two conclusions. Mike Pence is a knave or naïve. And that is not a good place for a politician to be.

But at least the U turn has been performed.

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