Liberals Are Being Too Hard on Poor Old Rob Portman

The Ohio senator change his mind on gay marriage. Why are liberals deriding his newfound empathy?

Sen. Rob Portman is a vapid hypocrite—and it’s a good thing for the rest of us that he is.

Portman, if you haven’t heard, is the Ohio Republican who last week suddenly and dramatically changed his long-held stance on gay marriage. Now he’s for it. Why? Turns out … his son is gay.

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.

It’s probably a sign of how far we’ve progressed in the gay-marriage fight that Portman’s change of heart was greeted by a bunch of eye-rolling. Instead of being grateful for an alliance with a high-profile elected official—and a Republican, at that—there was a surprising amount of derision on the left. “Oh, it’s nice that Portman changed sides in the fight,” went the thinking. “Too bad he couldn’t be bothered until it affected him personally.”

At Slate, Matt Yglesias made probably the most succinct liberal argument decrying Portman’s change of heart:

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? … 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.

Or, as tech guru Anil Dash hilariously Tweeted: “Eventually one of these Republican congressmen is going to find out his daughter is a woman, and then we’re all set.”

Me? I think we’re being much too hard on poor old Rob Portman. For one thing, he is a Republican—and while it seems clear that much of that party is on the verge of dropping its historic opposition to gay marriage, it’s not like GOP leaders are rushing to be leaders on the issue. For now, at least, Portman’s slightly ahead of his peers on the matter.

For another: It’s almost always the case that minority groups in this country have gained acceptance and rights, in part, by triggering the conscience—and empathy—of majority groups. Who couldn’t understand that Rosa Parks was tired and didn’t want to move? Who wouldn’t be shocked at whites beating up African-American students for sitting at a lunch counter? Who wouldn’t be horrified at the need to send in soldiers to protect little girls and their right to go to school? The Civil Rights movement was, in large part, a movement aimed at stirring the dormant moral conscience of America’s white population. Happily, it worked.

In Portman’s case, his moral conscience was stirred by his son. Sometimes it works that way.

It was ever thus. Democrats tend to be the empathy party, and Republicans don’t. (Or, to put it another way: Democrats tend to expand their circle of empathy outward; when Republicans extend empathy to somebody new, it’s often somebody they’ve brought “into” the group.) There’s a reason the left gets tagged with the sneering sobriquet of “bleeding-heart liberals.” We’re ever-ready to recognize some new group and make its cause our own. Conservatives ridicule this as “identity politics” or risibile “multiculturalism,” but empathy has its uses in politics.

If Mitt Romney had a little more empathy, for example, he might not’ve made his infamous comments decrying the “47 percent” of Americans who just want the government to give them a handout. Instead, last year’s Republican National Convention was built around a slogan—”We Built It”—designed to appeal to business owners. There are 27 million businesses in the United States; in 2012, there were 120 million voters.

The math isn’t hard to figure out: There are elections to be won in empathizing with—and appealing to—people who aren’t exactly like yourself.

Would it be nice if Rob Portman became a gay marriage supporter simply because it was the right thing to do? Sure. In politics—as in most of life—it doesn’t often work out that way. Minds get changed because the electorate changes. Incentives change. And sometimes, it’s because the best argument for a new perspective lives right under your own roof.