Will Indiana’s religious freedom law inform the 2016 GOP race?

Politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to that controversial new law in Indiana that opponents claim permits businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds.

For that and more, we turn to our politics Monday check-in.

Tonight, Margaret Talev, who is the White House and politics correspondent for Bloomberg News, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, join us.

It's great to have both of you.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Thank you.

MARGARET TALEV, Bloomberg: It's nice to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let's talk about Indiana, Susan.

Mike Pence, the governor, made a big deal out of the fact he was signing this into law. He's been out defending it, including yesterday on the Sunday talks shows. Do you think that he and the people around him knew what they were stirring up?

SUSAN PAGE: I don't think so.

What a tidal wave that has caused today. You have got business leaders and union leaders and Democrats really taking the governor and the state of Indiana to task for this law. And it's interesting because it's not very different, slightly different, not significantly different, from a federal law that was passed in 1993 or from laws that have been passed in many other states.

But, man, the timing of this law and some of the provisions of the law have really become part of the cultural debate in this country and part of the changing attitudes that we see toward same-sex marriage in particular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's right.

In fact, we — I was going to wait a minute, but you mentioned the public attitudes. Let's look at these before I turn to you, Margaret.

There's a Pew poll that was done. You can see this. They polled among Republicans. Among young Republicans aged 18-29, 61 percent favor the idea of same-sex marriage, but among Republicans overall, it's significantly less, just 39 protocol.

What does that say about where the Republican Party is, the future of the party, on this issue?

MARGARET TALEV: Well, this is a generational issue, just like it is in the Democratic Party and among independents. But there's a real wave.

And it's interesting. The question for Mike Pence is, is this good for him politically, right?  But it may actually be more difficult for Jeb Bush politically, for Rand Paul politically, for Republican conservatives who want to be able to appeal either to young voters or to the center, to crossover voters, because it will force them to talk about the issue as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are they going to — how much is this going to be an issue, Susan?  At this point, what do we — it certainly is getting huge attention right now.

SUSAN PAGE: There's not a big divide in the Democratic Party. Democrats tend to support — they certainly support anti-discrimination laws and they tend to support same-sex marriage.

But there's a big divide in the Republican Party, because you have these younger Republicans who say, what's the big deal?  Of course we support same-sex marriage. But a big part of the Republican coalition are evangelical Christians. They, many of them feel very strongly opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage, very concerned about what they're seeing.

Remember, we're going to have arguments in the Supreme Court in just a couple of weeks over what may turn out to be a recognition of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. You see evangelical Christians, such a powerful force in the Republican Party, being extremely alarmed about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, you mentioned the candidates. How do you — how is it seen that the candidates are going to deal with this?  And what about Mike Pence himself?  Where does he stand right now in terms of announcing whether he's going to run or not?  He certainly has hinted at it.

MARGARET TALEV: Absolutely, and he has been making the rounds at the Republican governors conferences and all the sort of events that attract conservatives, the different elements of the base.

He is expected to be making his decision in the next several weeks, because he has to decide whether to run for another term for governor or whether in fact to go ahead and seek the presidency. And so this is going to become within the primary to some extent a litmus test, especially as you see state after state, something like 20 states now have some version of a law like this that they have got on the books.

It's the accumulation of these before the Supreme Court considers this, and so, absolutely, it's going to be a 2016 issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, what about among the — shall we say, the more conservative members of the Republican Party thinking about running for president?  Why aren't they more concerned about these younger voters, younger Republicans with different attitudes?

SUSAN PAGE: Because they have to get through the primaries before they can think about more general election kind of strategies.

And they have got to think about Republican primary voters, who tend to be older, tend to more conservative, a lot of them Tea Party conservatives, evangelical Christians in states like Iowa and South Carolina.

I don't think Mike Pence's problem is that he signed this law or defends it. I think it's that he defended it so poorly yesterday. He was on one of the Sunday shows and wasn't really responsive to a series of questions about how this law — what impact this law would have. Would it allow a florist to refuse to provide flowers to a gay marriage — to a gay couple getting married?

And we're going to have a Republican nominee who probably supports a religious freedom law. But I think they need to have some kind of better explanation about what it means and how it would work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was interesting. He kept turning it back to the question of George Stephanopoulos on ABC, and saying, you're asking the wrong question.

Let's talk about the other side of the political ledger. There were some stories, Margaret, over the weekend about the yet-to-be-announced Hillary Clinton campaign for president, some interesting reporting on what the thinking is inside the Hillary Clinton camp about the role of former President Bill Clinton.

Everybody's going to be asking, what is Bill Clinton going to be doing?  Of course, we got a little taste of that in 2008, when she ran the last time. But what is it?  Is it seen that he's a plus, that he's a minus, that he's both?

MARGARET TALEV: Overwhelmingly, he's a plus, but when he's a minus, man, he can really be a minus.

And the concern for the soon-to-be-announced Clinton campaign, we believe, is twofold. And one is, will he sort of step on her message or contradict what she is trying to do?  But the second is just, will she overshadow him?  And will that highlight the weaknesses that she sometimes has in communicating her softer side or sort of having the instinctive political skills that he was so good at?

So, it's on both of those. And I think what we're going to see is a real effort to try to coordinate the message between his staffers and her staffers, assuming this goes forward, and to try to get him always behind the scenes helping her to game things out, but being — trying to be selective in when he's out in front.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, it's clear they're spending a lot of time thinking about it.

SUSAN PAGE: Yes. They're thinking a lot — they're spending a lot of time thinking about how to control Bill Clinton. Well, good luck.

(LAUGHTER)

SUSAN PAGE: He is a guy who I think will defy being controlled.

He definitely wants to be helpful. He is very much supportive of his wife's candidacy and very much a defender of her. But the idea that they can get him on her message or prevent him from saying what he actually thinks, we will see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's right.

It's hard to imagine. We saw it in 2008, but, again, this time, it is hard to imagine him playing the number two role.

SUSAN PAGE: But he's — one thing to keep in mind — two things — 65 percent approval rating. Margaret looked it up right before the show. That's better than, you know, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: His rating is higher than…

SUSAN PAGE: Is higher than any other politician who is running in this race.

The other is, what an effective campaigner he is. How easy — how great is he at explaining complicated things, as we saw at the Democratic…

MARGARET TALEV: But, Judy, on the flip side, the thing to look for is, as a campaign that we expect announced heats up, how many reporters get attached to the Bill Clinton beat?  Because if there is coverage of Bill Clinton, it will be very difficult for them to control the message about him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I can't imagine the press is not going to want to be covering Bill Clinton to see what he is saying.

MARGARET TALEV: It will be the best beat, the best beat in national politics in 2016.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Talev, Susan Page, thank you both.

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