Scott Walker is supposed to be the candidate of principle among the Republican Party's 2016 presidential contenders, but it's rapidly becoming clear that his sole guiding principle is that he belongs in political office.
On abortion rights, "right-to-work" legislation, and immigration reform, the Wisconsin governor has recalibrated either his rhetoric (in the case of abortion) or his substantive position in the service of political expediency, demonstrating time and again that for all his rhetoric inveighing against cynical politics-as-usual, he's one of its most prominent practitioners.
The latest Walker flip-flop comes amid the political firestorm over Indiana's anti-gay "religious freedom" law, which would allow businesses and individuals to refuse services to LGBT people on religious grounds.
Gearing up for a difficult 2014 re-election battle in a swing state, Walker lauded his state's non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in a 2013 interview, arguing that the state's ban on marriage equality coupled with such protections struck a "healthy balance."
“In Wisconsin, we’ve had anti-discriminatory laws that are very similar to [the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act] for more than 30 years and they work quite effectively. We’re also a state that has a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as one man and one woman,” he told Al Hunt. “We’ve had no problems… I should say, limited problems with that.”
“At the same time, we have a constitutional amendment that defines marriage. There’s a healthy balance there,” Walker continued.
The anti-discrimination protections to which Walker referred were signed into law by Republican Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus in 1982. Dreyfus' measure banned discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing, and public accommodations. It was the first statewide gay rights law ever enacted.
Since Dreyfus signed the measure, 20 other states have followed suit. Indiana has not, which is why gays targeted by the new law signed by GOP Gov. Mike Pence have no legal recourse.
But Walker, that erstwhile champion of a "healthy balance" -- a little inequality here, a little equality there -- is now lending his support to Indiana's discriminatory law. Asked for the governor's position on the measure, Walker press secretary AshLee Strong told CNN on Sunday, "As a matter of principle, Gov. Walker believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience."
It's noteworthy that conservative supporters of license-to-discriminate laws always speak in the elliptical language of free religious exercise and rights of conscience. Take Jeb Bush, whose defense was so jumbled it made one long for the eloquence of Dubya:
There should be protections, and so, as it relates to marriage equality — and that may change, the Supreme Court may change that. That automatically then shifts the focus to people of conscience, and, I don’t know, have their faith make — they want to act on their faith, and may not be able to be employed for example. People have a right to do that, just as we need to be respectful for people who are in long-term committed relationships. Sorting that out is important.
In a very perverse sense, it underscores how far the country has come on LGBT issues that even as politicians express their support for denying basic civil rights, they nearly always avoid admitting that they're defending discrimination against a minority group. But make no mistake: That's exactly what Bush, Walker & Co. are sanctioning. For Bush, who has long crusaded against non-discrimination protections, that contemptible stance is at least a consistent one. In Walker's case, however, it reeks of craven opportunism.