INDIANAPOLIS — On the first day of the 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly, the leader of the House Democrats made a plea.
“On behalf of my caucus, I am calling for a two-year moratorium on social issues,” said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “And you know what they are.”
Pelath said he wanted lawmakers to focus on creating jobs and growing the economy.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, offered an intriguing response.
“I am sure there are going to be some social issues that Rep. Pelath and his party would like to advance as well. There will be 1,500 bills or so introduced here in the General Assembly, and we’ll let the committee process work.”
In other words, Bosma promised nothing — not to Pelath and the Democrats, but also not to his fellow Republicans.
There’s a reason for that. A legislative session devoted to nasty battles over socially divisive issues might be the Democrats’ only hope to regain, well, relevance.
Bosma, who is a pretty savvy political poker player, knows that.
At present, Democrats control only 31 votes in the House. They’d need at least two more votes to be able to choose a topping on the pizzas House members order during late night sessions.
And, if House Democrats want to influence public policy decisions, they will have to rely on the power of sweet reason to do that – which is another way of saying that they will have no influence at all.
But there are some cracks in what at a glance looks like a pretty solid Republican wall.
The Legislature, for example, will have to decide whether to send an amendment that would ban same-sex marriage to the voters.
Social conservatives desperately want the ban. They see traditional marriage as a bulwark of a healthy vibrant community — and they view that bulwark as being under assault.
Social conservatives are an important part of the GOP’s coalition.
Many business leaders, though, do not want the ban — and they have been trooping in strong numbers to outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels, incoming Gov. Mike Pence and every legislative leader they can find to say how much they don’t want the ban.
Those business leaders, who generally donate heavily to Republican campaigns, see a ban on same-sex unions as a barrier to recruiting talented people to the state. The last thing they want to do is have to spend more time and money to find qualified people.
Those business leaders also are an important part of the GOP’s coalition.
Already we can see some divisions developing. A few key GOP leaders have begun to say quietly — and, in the case of one legislative heavyweight, Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, not so quietly — that they, too, are opposed to the ban.
In short, they’re siding with the business wing of the party.
Less fully developed but also there are divisions in regard to abortion and issues related to women’s reproductive rights.
Social conservatives, again, see the issue in moral terms. As such, they cannot yield.
Many Republicans, though, saw what happened when GOP U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock began talking stridently about abortion in his campaign. He managed not only to seize defeat from the jaws of certain victory in his own race, but he also cost other Republicans votes along the way. As a bonus, he managed to convince many moderate and independent female voters who otherwise would veer Republican that the GOP was hostile to them and their concerns.
Legislative leaders become legislative leaders because they’re good at two things. They can manage people and, much more important, they know how to win.
Given the makeup of the Indiana General Assembly, in any fight — over social issues or otherwise — Democrats likely won’t play a role any more significant than that of innocent bystander.
Republicans have few if any disagreements in regard to fiscal policy, economic development or job creation. Their quarrels with each other concern social issues.
If there is a fight over social issues, it will be between and among Republicans — a kind of family quarrel.
It’s not good manners to get involved in family quarrels.
And, in the case of Indiana Democrats, it probably isn’t good politics, either.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.