Thank Pat Bauer

It’s too soon to know exactly what last week’s rebuff of a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions portends for state politics. One thing, though, seems clear: Indiana Republicans who have spent the past 20 years feeling more and more like their party’s been hijacked ought to give Pat Bauer, the Democratic speaker of the House, a big hand.

Bauer orchestrated the legislative process, making sure that certain voices, most notably those concerned about the future of Indiana’s economy, were finally given a fair hearing. The result was that when the proposed amendment came up for a vote in the House Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee, there was a deadlocked five to five tie, which was enough to keep the amendment from being voted on by the full House. This effectively killed momentum for legislation that, a year ago, seemed certain to write second class citizenship into the state’s Constitution for many Hoosiers.

This battle is not over yet. The chest thumpers who use bigotry as a way to mask their failure to solve any of this state’s real problems will be back again next year. But, because of what happened last week, they may be neutralized.

This doesn’t mean that some local brand of liberalism is in flower. All Pat Bauer did was to put the brakes on a runaway train. He did for a lot of Republicans what they have been unable to do themselves.

Indiana Republicanism used to be different. This was once a party exemplified by politicians like Robert Orr and John Mutz. These were pragmatic managers who stood for fair play and minding your own business. Their interests were more in line with the haves than the have-nots, but that was because many of them really believed prosperity at the top of society eventually benefited everyone to some degree.

The trouble is in Indiana you can describe Democrats pretty much the same way. To this day, Evan Bayh brags about his success at getting elected in what he calls a Republican state. He tried to use this as a way of selling himself as potential presidential material. But Bayh’s electability here doesn’t make him a new kind of Democrat; it makes him a successful Hoosier politician, a Republicrat. He governed by assiduously protecting the affluent, while convincing many of the rest of us that Indiana didn’t have a problem lower taxes wouldn’t fix. In 1988, he went so far as to hammer John Mutz for being a tax and spender.

Bayh’s success — and his ability to bring much of the state’s Democratic Party with him — pulled the rug out from under Orr/Mutz Republicans by completely blurring the differences between the two parties.

This opened the door for a new, virulently ideological strain on the Republican right. Enter Eric Miller and Advance America. A micro version of what’s happened with Republicans nationally, Miller uses old-fashioned scape-goating and resentment to mobilize a vocal minority in the name of “values.” This so-called Republican base has been loud enough to dominate the Republican Party, frightening risk-averse politicians of all persuasions and skewing what passes for political discourse.

And so a state with a dire need for economic rejuvenation, a broken school system, notorious political corruption, crumbling infrastructure, and a major brain drain of its best and brightest young people has been fixated on protecting the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman — half of whom wind up getting divorced anyway.

Our Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, almost certainly winces every time Miller and his cynical allies strut about how they’ll make Indiana the next Mississippi. But he’s appeared powerless to steer his party toward higher ground. For every step Daniels has taken to attract new business here, Miller and his ilk have crab-walked two steps back.

Ironically, it took a Democrat, Pat Bauer, to reach out to the heads of the state’s largest employers — Lilly, Dow AgroSciences, Emmis Communications, Cummins and WellPoint. Once upon a time this would have been considered the heart of the state’s Republican batting order. One after another, these corporations came forward and testified that writing gay bashing into the Constitution would hurt their ability to compete in a global marketplace.

If the defeat of the constitutional amendment seems a victory for Democrats, it’s really a return to the conservative common sense associated with the middle ground where most of Indiana finds itself most of the time. Thanks to the political cover provided by Pat Bauer, it’s also a chance for old guard Republicans to regroup and take their party’s agenda back. Somewhere, Bob Orr might be smiling.

For more on Eric Miller, see Laura McPhee’s story at:

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