Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why did Rob Portman flip on gay marriage?

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is a nationally prominent conservative Republican—prominent enough that he was seriously considered as a vice-presidential running mate by the Romney campaign last year. Over the course of his political career, Portman had a consistent record of opposing same-sex marriage, legislation protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in work and employment, the rights of gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, and so on. Then a few days ago Portman very publicly announced that he has changed his mind and now supports gay marriage. (You can read his op-ed on the subject here.)  That makes him the first, and so far the only, sitting Republican Senator to support gay marriage.

(There do seem to be two other Republican now in Congress who publicly supports marriage equality for gay people, Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and New York Representative Richard Hannah.)

So why did Portman reverse his position on same-sex marriage, and what should we make of his reasons for doing so?

=> As Brad DeLong correctly noted, The Onion cut to the heart of the matter:
GOP Senator Flips On Gay Marriage After Son Comes Out

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a leading conservative who was on Mitt Romney’s shortlist for vice president, announced the reversal of his longstanding position against same-sex marriage, saying he had a change of heart after his son came out to him two years ago. What do you think?
The responses from "the public" are presumably fictitious, but one of them is very much on-target:
“Let’s hope his kid has a tough time finding affordable health care.”
Lee Swart – Wharf Worker
The Onion is a satirical publication, but their factual account happens to be straightforwardly accurate.  Sometimes satire doesn't have to stray very far from reality. 

=> To be sure, Portman's op-ed also offered a principled justification for his current position, which he was careful to frame in conservative terms:
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way. We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.

One way to look at it is that gay couples’ desire to marry doesn't amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution.
As a matter of fact, a conservative (or conservative/libertarian) case for gay marriage along these lines is both coherent and plausible. (A number of people have been making that case for decades—Andrew Sullivan is one conspicuous example—and in February they were joined by none other than John Huntsman, who argued in print that "Marriage Equality Is a Conservative Cause".) But it's interesting that Portman never found such arguments convincing, or even worth taking seriously, until the political turned personal in this connection. And Portman's own account of his conversion process emphasized the personal element as crucial:
As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way.

Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is. Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.

At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.
=> One might argue that all this leaves the Onion's basic reading of the situation intact. But, by itself, their account of the matter is a bit too quick and simple. For a more extended reflection on the issues involved, we can turn to Jon Chait:
Rob Portman’s dual revelations that his son is gay and that he has decided to support gay marriage are both a touching story of familial love and another signpost in the astonishingly rapid success of the gay-rights revolution. Just over eight years ago, when Republicans gleefully seized on the gay-marriage issue to mobilize their base in Portman’s own state, it was inconceivable that a statewide Democrat would endorse gay marriage, let alone a Republican. The triumph of the issue relies upon the changing of minds — some thanks to force of argument, others to personal contact with gay friends, colleagues, and neighbors. From that standpoint, Portman’s conversion is a Very Good Thing.
That's a very important paragraph, which is worth stopping to read twice.  But Chait is right to add that it doesn't capture the whole story.
And yet as a window into the working of Portman’s mind, his conversion is a confession of moral failure, one of which he appears unaware.

Here is the story Portman tells, in a Columbus Dispatch op-ed, of how he came to change his mind:
At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.
By Portman’s own account, in other words, he opposed gay marriage until he realized that opposition to gay marriage stands in the way of his own son’s happiness.

Wanting your children to be happy is the most natural human impulse. But our responsibility as political beings — and the special responsibility of those who hold political power — is to consider issues from a societal perspective.  [....]

Portman ought to be able to recognize that, even if he changed his mind on gay marriage owing to personal experience, the logic stands irrespective of it: Support for gay marriage would be right even if he didn’t have a gay son. There’s little sign that any such reasoning has crossed his mind.  [JW: Well, there are some signs that it has crossed his mind now, but it doesn't seem to have crossed his mind before.]

In a CNN interview, Dana Bash repeatedly prodded Portman to reconcile his previous opposition to gay rights (which extended not only to marriage but also to not getting fired for being gay). He repeatedly confessed that it all came down to his own family:
But you know, what happened to me is really personal. I mean, I hadn't thought a lot about this issue. Again, my focus has been on other issues over my public policy career....

What would Portman say to gay constituents who may be glad he's changing his position on gay marriage, but also wondering why it took having a gay son to come around to supporting their rights?

"Well, I would say that, you know, I've had a change of heart based on a personal experience. That's certainly true," he responded with a shoulder shrug.

But he also repeated a reality. His policy focus has been almost exclusively on economic issues.

"Now it's different, you know. I hadn't expected to be in this position. But I do think, you know, having spent a lot of time thinking about it and working through this issue personally that, you know, this is where I am, for reasons that are consistent with my political philosophy, including family values, including being a conservative who believes the family is a building block of society, so I'm comfortable there now."
It’s pretty simple. Portman went along with his party’s opposition to gay marriage because it didn’t affect him. He thought about gay rights the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care. And he still obviously thinks about most issues the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care.

That Portman turns out to have a gay son is convenient for the gay-rights cause. But why should any of us come away from his conversion trusting that Portman is thinking on any issue about what’s good for all of us, rather than what’s good for himself and the people he knows?
=> That sounds right to me. And Matthew Yglesias does a good job of spelling out some concrete implications that go beyond this specific example:
Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn't lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness.  [....]

It's a great strength of the movement for gay political equality that lots of important and influential people happen to have gay children.  [JW: Dick Cheney, for example.]  That obviously does change people's thinking. And good for them.

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn't he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don't happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don't just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son's eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn't that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn't to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It's to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don't have direct access to the corridors of power.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That's something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Of course, people who agree with Pope Francis I that legalizing same-sex marriage is "a strategy to destroy God's plan" and an act of injustice against future children who will be "deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God" (as he put it in 2010, when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio) could make a complaint similar to Chait's about the reasons underlying Portman's reversal on this issue:  Was Portman thinking about "what’s good for all of us, rather than what’s good for himself and the people he knows?"