Thoughts on Rob Portman’s Gay Marriage Conversion

Friday’s announcement that Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, has had a change of heart over gay marriage and now supports a partial legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act after learning that his son is gay, initially sent my cynicism filter into overdrive. Therefore, let me make a few initial points:

1) I admire Portman’s son for coming out, just like I admire anyone who comes to that insigth and musters the courage to make it matter. But his situation must have been particularly tough, knowing that his private life become a public issue and potentially complicate his dad’s political career.

2) I’m happy that Portman realized that his previous position was wrong, and that he is able to adapt intellectually and emotionally to a new reality, and square it with his political and religious beliefs. By changing his mind about the most important LGBT issues of the day, he has suddenly become the most prominent current office-holder in the Republican Party to support marriage equality. And he’s grounding his new position in a conservative understanding of limited government and stable, loving families. Sure, Andrew Sullivan, then a conservative, made this point 20 years ago, but the GOP has never been particularly quick to take in new ideas.

3) This won’t turn the Republican Party into a pro-gay party overnight, or even one that’s especially tolerant of gay people, or sensitive to the interests of the gay community or its supporters, but it cements the impression that a tide is turning in American politics. If the GOP, having lost the youth vote decisively twice now, wants a chance to improve its image with those voters, it needs to understand that gay-bashing is not the way forward. Young people, however conservative they may be on other issues, just don’t think the gay thing is a big deal. Over at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza argues that Portman’s evolution is an harbinger of the issue’s coming relegation to second-tier status among nationally ambitious Republicans. I’m not sure if I’m willing to go that far – there’s still a wide gulf between the people who vote in Republican primaries and the increasingly gay-accepting voting public at large – but it’s definitely a start.

4) Before piling on Portman for being unacceptably slow to take the plight of ordinary, loving Americans into account, remember that no more than a year ago, not even President Obama was willing to go on the record supporting marriage equality. Obama certainly took his time “evolving” on the issue, and it was not until recently that his administration dropped its tepid objection to DOMA in favor of outspoken argument for its unconstitutionality. Yes, Obama went from “evolving” to supporting gay marriage, whereas Portman has made a career of opposing equal marriage rights and voting in favor of DOMA when he was a House member. My point is simply that for a long time Obama was a flawed leader on these issues.

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That said, I generally agree with the points raised by Matt Yglesias of SlatePaul Krugmanof the New York TimesIrin Cameron of Salon and others, that the particulars of Portman’s decision speaks to a larger deficiency in American politics. It’s understandable that learning that his son is gay brought this issue closer to home for the senator, and that’s part of why it’s still important for people to come out. It’s harder to vote against people’s human rights if you know somebody who’ll be directly affected. The logic is certainly applicable to other areas as well. Would the opposition to abortion rights or immigration reform, or the ignorance of the plight of the poor or ethnic minorities be softened somewhat if the Republican Party actually made an effort to recruit their members and candidates more broadly? A GOP more representative of the American people would no doubt be a boon to American political discourse.

Of course, not all problems with current American politics can be cured by the Republicans getting out more. Some things can only be fixed by real political leadership. Yes, it would be helpful if elected officials knew more about what it’s like to be out of work, or in the shadows, or going without health insurance, but that knowledge does not in and of itself ensure change. As Krugman points out, it would be heartening if sometimes, political leaders were willing to imagine or reevaluate the consequences of their own positions, even in cases where they themselves are not directly affected.

And yet, this is where my cynicism ends. The immediate impulse of idealists on both the left and the right tends to be dissatisfaction with the pace of change, or that people did not reach their preferred position sooner. It might sound ungrateful, but it is that impatience that in the end gets things done. And however much I as an off-the-charts lefty might be tempted to lecture Rob Portman about what it took for him to come down on the side of human dignity and equal rights, I think we have to keep in mind the very real political risks Portman is facing by being in front in the perhaps slowly evolving Republican Party on this issue. It strikes me as an ungracious and overly cynical reading when Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor at the New York Times opines that Portman’s long journey to a new position is typical of a larger trend of politicians whose career is on the wane. Portman might no longer be a future vice presidential or presidential contender, but he could have ambitions of climbing the Senate hierarchy. For that matter, if the reaction on the right is any indication is any guide, his new position has made him vulnerable to a right-wing primary challenger when he’s expected to run for re-election to the Senate in 2016. With the instinct for self-preservation of the professional political class, taking such risks is not particularly common, but it certainly is something to be commended.

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