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The debate over Rob Portman

Tom Jackson • Mar 18, 2013 at 2:42 PM

By now, if you pay any attention to political news all, you have probably heard that Ohio's Republican U.S. senator, Rob Portman, has changed his position on gay marriage and now supports it. Portman's son is gay and finding that out in 2011 when his son "came out" played a key role in changing the senator's mind.

Portman's announcement has sparked a lively debate among commentators who support gay marriage about how much credit Portman deserves for changing his mind. 

Matthew Yglesias, the influential Slate blogger, penned a scathing column asking why conservative Republicans never have an emphathy for struggling people unless it's an issue that touches them 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," Yglesias wrote.

Various other lefties have piled on Portman in similar vein, including Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman

These criticisms have produced an interesting pushback from other writers, who wonder why Portman can't get any credit for changing his mind.

Mike Riggs at Reason wrote that the criticism is "concern trolling at its most formulaic--10 percent approval, 90 percent goal-post moving." 

Glenn Greenwald noted that Portman's change of heart was similar to Barack Obama's.

"It may be selfish and narcissistic to support equality only once you realize inequality harms those you care about, but that has been a very common dynamic - among people from both parties and across the ideological spectrum, whose switch from opposing gay marriage to supporting it was triggered by a very similar experience to the one motivating Portman," Greenwald wrote.

"That's why coming out has been such a powerful act: because people are less willing to support discrimination when they they realize it harms those they care about. It's true in general: it's much harder to demonize people when they're familiar."


Will Saletan, also at Slate, argued that Portman's critics don't realize it wasn't easy for Portman to break with his party.


"When your parents and peers are liberal, reaching liberal conclusions is no sweat. You don’t support SNAP benefits because you know malnourished kids, any more than you support climate-change legislation because you know peasant farmers. It isn’t empathy that leads you to these conclusions. It’s inertia," Saletan wrote.

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