He kept his conversation calm and collected but restlessly played with a water bottle from which he hardly drank.
Coats announced in March he will retire following the 2016 election, leaving an open seat in what is predicted to be one of the closest Senate races in 2016.
After working in the federal government for almost 35 years as a member of the House of Representatives, ambassador and senator, he has observed firsthand the evolution of the polarization of party politics in America.
“There’s always been, throughout the history of our country, at least two parties with a different vision of the role of the federal government and the philosophy behind that role,” Coats said. “What’s new is the arrival of social media and the ability of individual members to no longer need to hold to a party view or operate within a party system.”
He continued, adding that social media has allowed for politicians to garner support through shared opinions on particular issues rather than the party as ?a whole.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, one of the most partisan issues facing Indiana, was driven in part by social media.
Recounting his experience of the RFRA ordeal from his office in Washington, D.C., Coats leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs and with a weary tone and animated hand gestures, ?expressed its weight on him as a lifelong Hoosier.
“I really was burdened by it all because I know my state pretty well,” he said. “I’ve been everywhere in this state — small town, big town, rural, industrial, whatever. I just felt that the issue was an issue that ought to be addressed, but I really felt that it wasn’t being addressed the way it ought to be. There wasn’t a civil discussion in terms of how to go forward, and there wasn’t enough listening and far too much ?yelling.”
During his first term in the Senate, Coats voted in favor of the federal RFRA and the Defense of Marriage Act, both of which are credited with enabling discrimination against LGBT people.
“I felt badly that my state was being mischaracterized in terms of the way that I viewed it,” he said. “I think there were a lot of gross misrepresentations, but it didn’t mean that the issue shouldn’t have been ?addressed sensibly.”
Following the RFRA ordeal, Gov. Mike Pence’s approval rating has dropped from 62 percent to anywhere between 35 and 45 percent, depending on the poll.
This raises questions of whether or not this will affect which party will fill Coats’ soon-to-be empty seat.
“I have no idea how that will affect this election, only time will tell,” Coats said. “We don’t know who is going to be running, what positions they are going to take.”
It’s up to the courts, anyway, the 71-year-old added.
“I think most people understand that this was an issue that the government essentially has passed down to the states to deal with because the major issues that affect the federal government have basically been decided by the court,” ?Coats said.
For the remaining year and a half of his term, Coats expressed relief he won’t have to campaign for funds and will be able to spend more time on the two issues he sees as the most important for America’s future: the national debt and terrorism.
“I think I am positioned in the right committees to address those issues,” he said. “I’ve made the pledge to myself and to my constituents. I believe I came in as a roaring lion, and I want to go out as a roaring lion, not a lamb. So I’m going to use my last year and a half to have even more time to focus on the job of representing my state but also dealing with major issues because I will not be running all over the country raising money.”