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Mike Pence is politely fighting on the front line of the right-wing culture war

Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Gov. Mike Pence Attends House GOP Weekly Conference Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s running mate, is often seen as a generic, establishment, inoffensive conservative who balances Trump’s chaos. Unlike Trump, Pence doesn’t think name-calling has any place in our national politics. Unlike Trump, Pence’s conservative bona fides have never been in question.

Yet Pence is anything but generic or inoffensive when it comes to right-wing “culture war” issues, like women’s health, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and basic trust in science. In some cases, Pence has actually led the way on making regressive social policy part of the GOP “establishment.”

And picking Pence as his running mate was a key signal that Trump would be willing to go along with those regressive policies.

Pence illegally tried to bar Syrian refugees from coming to Indiana, using Trump-like scare tactics

A federal appeals court recently blocked Pence’s attempts to keep Syrian refugees out of Indiana. The court said it was illegal for Pence to accept federal money for refugee resettlement and refuse to use it to help Syrian refugees.

The judges said Pence used “nightmare speculation,” based on no evidence, that Syrian refugees might commit terrorism.

Trump’s campaign, of course, has been full of similar “nightmare speculation” — about Mexicans and Muslims most of all, but also about Syrian refugees and other perceived “outsiders” who might threaten America’s greatness.

Pence started the GOP’s war on Planned Parenthood, and he’s radically anti-abortion

Rally Held In Support Of Cutting Planned Parenthood Funding - DC Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

In recent years, it’s become almost a ritual for Republicans in Congress to threaten to shut down the government, or hold up essential bills like Zika prevention, over defunding Planned Parenthood.

But Pence actually started that trend while he was in Congress. Before 2007, when Pence was the first member of Congress to introduce legislation to defund Planned Parenthood, it wasn’t something most Republicans talked about. But he kept pushing the issue until it led to a government shutdown fight in 2011 — and pretty soon, bashing Planned Parenthood became routine for most Republicans.

Pence’s war on Planned Parenthood also had some dire consequences for his state. After he cut funding for the women’s health provider, a rural Planned Parenthood — which was the only HIV testing center in Scott County, Indiana — was forced to close its doors in 2013. Two years later, Scott County became the epicenter of a devastating HIV outbreak.

Planned Parenthood has also been spuriously attacked for its role in fetal tissue research, which may have inspired Pence to sign an anti-abortion bill this year that was so extreme even many pro-life Republicans opposed it.

The law, which was later overturned by a federal judge, required all fetal tissue — at any stage of development, and no matter whether it came from an abortion or a miscarriage — to be cremated or buried. This would not only have prevented fetal tissue from being used in research; it would also have forced women to seek funerary services for their fetuses. The bill also banned abortion in cases of “disability,” which meant outlawing abortion in case of fetal anomaly.

As a member of Congress, Pence sponsored several other extreme anti-abortion bills. One would have denied some rape victims coverage for abortion, by redefining rape as “forcible” for the purpose of federal abortion funding. Another bill would have allowed Catholic hospitals to deny abortion even to pregnant women who would die without it. And more than once, Pence sponsored legislation to ban all abortion entirely.

Pence has repeatedly stood against LGBTQ equality

Indiana became a flashpoint for LGBTQ rights in 2015, when Pence signed a religious freedom bill that many advocates said could be used to allow local businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

The effort backfired on Pence spectacularly. Prominent businesses and celebrities called for a boycott of the entire state of Indiana over the law. The backlash was so intense, and so potentially damaging, that Pence eventually signed a legislative fix clarifying that the law didn’t allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

It’s not clear whether the law could have actually been used to discriminate against LGBTQ people in this way, as Vox’s German Lopez explained. But what is clear is that in Indiana, and many other states, LGBTQ people still aren’t protected from discrimination in the workplace, housing, or public accommodations like restaurants or hotels.

And when the Indiana legislature was considering a bill to protect LGBTQ civil rights, Pence made it clear that he didn’t care whether it passed. “That’s not on my agenda,” he said. The bill never made it to his desk.

Pence at least claimed he didn’t favor discrimination against LGBTQ people during this controversy, but he’s made a lot of unsavory comments in the past about LGBTQ people.

In 2006, he said that gay couples signified “societal collapse.” During his 2000 congressional campaign, he actively opposed laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. He continues to oppose same-sex marriage, and has advocated banning “homosexuals” from serving in the military.

Perhaps most alarmingly, Pence’s 2000 campaign platform also proposed diverting HIV/AIDS funds to “those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior” — in other words, to ineffective and abusive “conversion therapy” programs designed to try to turn gay people straight.

Pence still hasn’t clarified whether he thinks taking that position was a good idea.

Pence has been hostile to science in scary, damaging ways

Again, Pence’s record on HIV issues is particularly troubling. Not only did his decision to defund Planned Parenthood and its HIV screening programs help contribute to Indiana’s HIV crisis but he also arguably prolonged the crisis by waiting two months to authorize a clean needle distribution plan.

Pence’s most bizarre anti-science view might be on cigarettes. He was still arguing in 2000 that smoking doesn’t actually kill. He has opposed numerous cigarette taxes in recent years, and he also made it easier to start a cigar bar in Indiana, which has the seventh-highest smoking rate in the nation.

Some of Pence’s anti-science positions are about what you’d expect from a conservative Republican these days. He denies climate change, rejects evolution, and support teaching creationism in public schools. And the anti-abortion bills he supports tend to ignore the medical reality of what happens when women get pregnant — as many such bills do.

Those views, and the others listed in this piece, could have significant effects on public policy. But while some of Pence’s views may seem extreme, they’re also consistent with the mainstream Republican “establishment.”

While Pence has often led the way on issues like opposing abortion and LGBTQ equality, he’s also not too unusual in his party. The GOP platform still condemns same-sex marriage, and it still calls for banning all abortion (and perhaps some forms of contraception) by counting fertilized eggs as “persons.”

Trump backtracked from his infamous comment that women would have to face some form of punishment if abortion were illegal — but he’s also doubled down on his anti-abortion stances, both by choosing Pence and by hiring a leading anti-abortion activist to do outreach work for his campaign. And while Trump has attempted some friendly gestures toward the LGBTQ community, having Pence at his side sends a much different message on the campaign trail.

Pence has led the way on a lot of right-wing culture war battles, but he’s also not that unusual in his party for doing so. And by picking Pence as his running mate, Trump also dispelled a lot of illusions that he would be different.

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