Jeb's spineless cave to donors: Why he's really backtracking on the Indiana law

Two days after staunchly backing Mike Pence, Bush tells Silicon Valley donors the law must be changed. Or something

Published April 2, 2015 2:47PM (EDT)

  (AP/David Goldman)
(AP/David Goldman)

And so it begins: Just a day after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence  hung him out to dry by conceding that his state’s “religious freedom” law needed a fix, Jeb Bush likewise backed away from his seemingly staunch support for the bill as passed.

At least some wealthy donors say he did. It’s hard to be sure from what he said at a Northern California fundraiser Wednesday night.

“By the end of the week, I think Indiana will be in the right place, which is to say that we need in a big diverse country like America, we need to have space for people to act on their conscience, that it is a constitutional right that religious freedom is a core value of our country,” Bush told a group of Silicon Valley fatcats.

What a steaming bowl of mush.

Bush was in a tough place. It was all such bad timing – as he headed to Silicon Valley to raise megabucks for his Right to Rise PAC. Bay Area businesses like Twitter, Yelp and Salesforce, plus valley titan Apple, had all blasted the law. Still, on Monday night, Bush sounded like Sen. Ted Cruz in his support for poor Mike Pence, who had been asked five times on Sunday whether the bill allowed discrimination against LGBT Americans and couldn’t ever say yes or no.

Pence had done “the right thing,” Bush told Hugh Hewitt. “Once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

But Pence himself apparently disagreed, and on Tuesday, he held a long, self-contradictory press conference where he said the bill didn’t do what its nasty national media critics said it did – but it needed fixing anyway.

That pulled the rug out from under Bush, just as he headed to Silicon Valley. Already, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carla Marinucci reports, the former Florida governor has “sucked the oxygen out of the room” when it comes to California cash. A Republican insider told her Bush has become “the darling of tried-and-true donors, and they’re solidly behind him.”

Except some were a tiny bit peeved over the Indiana law, and Bush faced them down at the Four Seasons in East Palo Alto – and reportedly caved.

“We shouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation,” he told the crowd, according to a tape recording obtained by the New York Times. “So what the State of Indiana is going to end up doing is probably get to that place.”

Still, Bush continued to defend the rights of the Washington State florist who was sued for refusing to provide services to a same-sex wedding. How to protect her right to discriminate while prohibiting discrimination is going to be a heavy lift for the Indiana legislature. After the New York Times reported on his remarks, the Bush campaign provided a transcript to the Washington Post.

But I do fear that certain freedoms that historically have been part of our DNA as a country now are being challenged and I don’t think it’s appropriate. I do think if you’re a florist and you don’t want to participate in the arrangement of a wedding, you shouldn’t have to be obliged to do that if it goes against your faith because you believe in traditional marriage. Likewise if someone walked into a flower shop as a gay couple and said I want to buy all these off the rack, these flowers, they should have every right to do it. That would be discrimination. But forcing someone to participate in a wedding is not discrimination; it is I think protecting the first amendment right.

Bush also seemed to endorse Utah's religious freedom law, which was passed with the participation of LGBT and Mormon groups and included non-discrimination protection. "[Utah] figured it out and they passed a law. There wasn’t a bunch of yelling and screaming. That to me seems like a better approach to dealing with this."

Was the crowd convinced? Venture capitalist Bill Draper told the Times that after the event, he still wasn’t clear about Bush’s stand on the Indiana law.

“I don’t know what Jeb feels,” he said. “In Silicon Valley, we are very liberal on the issues of gays and women’s rights, and we’re all sensitive to the apparent wording of the law.”

But Draper said he enthusiastically supported Bush despite his mushiness on Indiana, so he can’t be too sensitive.

Meanwhile, over in Bankston, Iowa, Ted Cruz was leaving no doubt about where he stood, blasting business for pressuring Pence to change the law. “The Fortune 500 is running shamelessly to endorse the radical gay marriage agenda over religious liberty to say: 'We will persecute a Christian pastor, a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi,' " he said. "Any person of faith is subject to persecution if they dare disagree, if their religious faith parts way from their political commitment to gay marriage."

Railing against #BigGay is obviously a big winner in Iowa, if not in California. There are now reports that Indiana's "religious freedom" fix will include non-discrimination language likely to upset social conservatives. It’s going to be a fun race. A Washington Post/ABC News poll out Thursday morning finds that of six Republicans included in the survey, “not a single one” has a net-positive favorability rating. Bush is way underwater, with only 33 percent of voters polled viewing him favorably, while 53 percent view him unfavorably. This battle is unlikely to help.

By Joan Walsh