Pence book provides window into tenure as governor
Former Vice President Mike Pence can’t handle the truth, columnist contends. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Covering four years of Mike Pence when he was governor was often an act of futility.
As the world now knows, he refuses to answer questions in any meaningful way and his administration caught onto that trait fast. He had big ideas but didn’t sweat the details. In his new book, So Help Me God, he explains his deference to the legislature as a chosen leadership style.
“State Senators and Representatives are not term limited,” Pence says in the book. “They remain in office as long as voters wish. From their perspective, it’s governors and their grand plans who come and go. I could relate to that as a former legislator, and I approached the role of governor as a co-equal in Indiana government.”
Pence said when he was in Congress he didn’t work for the president: “I had worked for the people of my congressional district. And I knew that Indiana’s lawmakers had the same loyalty to their constituents.”
I picked up the book specifically so I could look back and hear what he had to say on his time as governor from 2013 to 2017. I viewed it from a different, but up-close, lens. For the most part it is a fair recollection — except for RFRA — and I learned some interesting tidbits.
For instance, he wanted a 10% income tax cut to be his first big accomplishment. And the GOP-led legislature wasn’t really on board. He talks of closed-door meetings in his office that were going nowhere. Then he kicked the staff out – even his own.
“Often in meetings when officeholders or politicians are surrounded by staff members, you’re preoccupied with leading them as much as they are focused on engaging with the other principals in the room. With the staff gone, the posturing ended. I asked how we could get this done for the people who elected us … Negotiations were straightforward. There were no threats. There was no cajoling, we regrouped, restarted the negotiations and 36 hours later found our way to a compromise.”
The income tax cut was only 5% but the inheritance tax was also eliminated and corporate income taxes were reduced.
Syria and Audrey
One of the more revealing sections was about his decision in late 2015 to stop funding Syrian refugees for fear that a terrorist would slip in among the families escaping the war.
The decision made national news and, since the refugees generally were all Muslim, it was criticized as religious discrimination. But the fascinating part was that Pence detailed his daughter Audrey calling him when she heard the news.
“She wasn’t happy about it. Karen and I had raised our kids to think for themselves, meaning that they don’t agree with us on everything,” he said in the book.
But this disagreement was different. In the summer of 2014, as a college student, Audrey had visited refugee camps in Jordan. The following year, she interned in Istanbul, Turkey, and saw firsthand the desperate plight of the men and women fleeing the violence in Syria.
“She had felt incredibly frustrated when she’d heard about my decision to pause funding to resettlement agencies. This is so important. Why would you do that? She asked me. I appreciated her perspective and experiences. I valued them truly. But we disagreed,” he said.
The discussion got heated and the call ended. Hours later they talked again, and it was more productive, though neither ceded.
In the end, federal courts agreed with Audrey and blocked Pence’s plans
Pence’s re-telling of how he convinced the Obama administration to agree to HIP 2.0 – an expansion of the consumer-driven health plan – using federal Medicaid dollars was pretty straightforward.
In the end, both sides saw it as a win: Pence got federal dollars to help hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers but with some strings that Medicaid didn’t require. And Obama got a red state on board for Medicaid expansion.
But the section on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was another story. Just like back then, he claims this was all a big misunderstanding by the reckless, woke, elite, – insert your adjective here – media.
He points out that initial religious freedom laws were passed with no hysteria back in the early 1990s. That is true. But times had changed by 2015 when the Indiana law came along. The nation was on the precipice of legalizing same-sex marriage and the stakes were higher than they were before.
The fury that followed his signing the bill stunned him: “The woke brigades of politicians, media and corporate America mobilized before woke-ism was even a thing … We were blindsided.”
Pence said the law was never a license to discriminate. But he left out that some vocal supporters of the legislation, including religious leaders and conservative activists who stood behind him for photos when he signed the bill privately, were very open that the bill could be used to sidestep anti-discrimination ordinances and laws so they couldn’t be forced to provide services to gay people. For instance, a baker or a florist for a same-sex wedding.
The governor conceded he erred in doing the infamous George Stephanopoulos interview, writing, “Indiana speaker Brian Bosma called me personally after the interview with some none-too-kind feedback. I probably deserved it. The interview only intensified the hysteria.”
After days of Indiana’s reputation being dragged nationally, Pence — along with legislative leaders and corporate executives — forged a fix that said RFRA couldn’t be used to deny service based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Pence cast the entire debacle as a massive misinterpretation but he and I remember those days quite differently. A law has to be judged for all the ways it could be used and the nation did just that.
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