First off, good for Sen. Rob Portman for coming out in favor of marriage equality. In today’s Republican party, taking a public stand that flies in the face of the current orthodoxy requires courage, as well as confidence that you won’t be facing a primary challenge any time soon.
Portman’s support matters. He is the quintessential establishment Republican and was a runner-up to be Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate. (Although not being chosen was the equivalent of losing your boarding pass for the Titanic, and the gay son angle probably didn’t help his chances in any case.)
Unlike the bulk of the Republicans who signed onto the Supreme Court brief in support of gay marriage, Portman is actually in a position to do something. And it’s a good father who is willing to rethink long-held beliefs out of love for his children.
The disturbing part of Portman’s announcement is his acknowledgment that he probably wouldn’t have given marriage equality a second thought if it hadn’t been for his son. In a CNN interview, Portman was asked what he would say to people who were happy that he changed his position but wonder why it took having a gay son to do so.
“Well, I would say that, you know, I’ve had a change of heart based on a personal experience,” Portman responded with what CNN calls “a shoulder shrug.”
You would hope that someone in political life would actually consider the societal implications of his positions instead of acting solely from purely personal experience. Of course, that may be asking too much from a politician. But Portman would have remained on autopilot for who knows how long simply because he never stopped to think about whether he should change.
“I hadn’t expected to be in this position,” he told CNN. “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.”
That answer underscores the casual homophobia that pervades the GOP today: True, there’s a big contingent in the party that is so socially conservative that they would be happy to see a return to the Inquisition, and may even view that as a bit squishy. But there are also folks like Marco Rubio, who told the CPAC conference this week that the definition of marriage should be left to the states. Rubio trumpeted his support for traditional marriage, but he didn’t call for a repeal of state laws that promote equality, which would have been the sign of a real believer. On a similar note, Rand Paul told reporters this week that tax reform was the solution to the quest for marriage equality. These are two of the leading lights of the party today.
Republicans are so beholden to its past that it can’t shake it off. The party been so anti-gay for so long that party leaders reflexively hold onto positions simply out of habit. It’s red meat for the fringe, so why change? (I hear you say, human decency would be a good motive, but we are talking politics.) What’s striking about Portman’s admission is the silence with which it has been met by his peers. You’d think he just told them that his son was a serial killer and they were keeping silent out of respect for a family tragedy.
Finally, let’s not lose sight of who really displayed courage in this episode: Portman’s son Will. He demonstrated tremendous integrity by coming out to his father at age 19, knowing that Dad voted for DOMA and was a leading light in a political party that made opposition to gay marriage a centerpiece of its get-out-the-vote strategy.
If there’s any future for the GOP, they will have to find a way to make Will feel that he (and whoever he marries) belongs as part of the party, and not just because his Dad is a leader of it.