INDIANAPOLIS—Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb had a particular political problem as he prepared to deliver his sixth State of the State Address.
The Indiana General Assembly was only a week into the 2022 session when he stepped before the lectern in the House chamber.
That week, though, has been time enough for legislators to engage in divisive and controversial battles over measures that would allow Hoosiers to carry guns without permits, ban businesses from honoring or enforcing vaccine mandates and prevent teachers from teaching just about anything but math without parents’ approval.
One of the authors of that last measure, Indiana Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, made himself a figure of national attention and a focus of one of late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert’s monologues. Baldwin said he wanted schools and teachers to be “neutral” in teaching about Nazism, fascism, and communism.
When an uproar ensued, Baldwin tried to back away from his remarks. He did so with all the grace and aplomb of a wounded water buffalo.
Many of these initiatives have not had Holcomb’s endorsement or backing. Several of them run counter to the overriding theme of his governorship—that Indiana is a warm, welcoming and practical state, a good place to live, work and start a business.
That Hoosier lawmakers are doing things to undercut or embarrass an Indiana governor is nothing new. Legislators often are eager to assert their prerogatives, particularly when the governor belongs to the other party.
What makes this session unusual is that many of the lawmakers giving Holcomb headaches are his fellow Republicans.
Well, that’s not precisely true.
The fact is that there now are, for all practical purposes, three political parties in Indiana.
There are Democrats.
There are Republicans.
And there are the members of the Deny Reality Party.
The last group is the one making most of the noise and, thus far, driving the agenda for this session.
That is why the state’s lawmakers have deliberated on a bill to make it easier for Hoosiers to carry guns even though a quarter of the Indiana school shootings over the past half-century have occurred within the past two years.
It’s also why our elected officials debate measures to stop business owners from protecting themselves, their employees and their customers from COVID-19 even though 19,000 Hoosiers have died from the virus.
And it’s why we have legislators contending that Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin might have had a point.
Holcomb could have confronted these delusions directly in his speech.
To do so, though, would have been to give the Deny Reality caucus a much bigger platform.
Instead, he took a wiser course.
He delivered a determinedly prosaic address that seemed designed to lower the session’s rhetorical temperature. His speech was sparser than previous ones when it came to surefire applause lines—clapping occurred less than 20 times in the nearly 32 minutes he talked—largely because Holcomb made a numbers-heavy, fact-laden case for … government.
He argued that good stewardship by the state’s leaders has made Indiana the only state among its neighbors to be increasing rather than losing population. He contended that, by telling the story of Lafayette’s troubled-teen-turned-successful entrepreneur Donte Wilburn, good work by state agencies could alter tragic life trajectories and inspire people to become good and productive citizens.
He also reminded Hoosiers that the role of Indiana schools and classrooms is not to serve as the battlefield in cultural wars but to provide the state’s children with the tools and understanding they need to be successful in life.
Holcomb’s most oblique but effective rebuttal to those who would deny reality came late, just three minutes before the end of the address. That’s when he tackled the question of COVID.
He noted that 19,000 Hoosiers have died from the disease and that our hospitals and healthcare systems were on the edge of collapse. He saluted the medical professionals who work to save Hoosier lives under such strains. And he thanked those who have been fully vaccinated, which, in a savvy move, he equated to being an act of good citizenship.
“A special thank you,” Holcomb said, “to all of those who are putting others above themselves to continue the battle against COVID-19.”
The governor’s speech may not have made pulses pound or hearts race.
But that’s okay.
It was smart politics.
And even better leadership.