Rob Portman, Strategy, and Politics of Character
This week, conservative Senator Rob Portman announced his support for marriage equality. Portman reported that his experience with his own son was the catalyst for his change of position.
“I’m announcing today a change of heart on an issue that a lot of people feel strongly about,” Portman said. “It has to do with gay couples’ opportunity to marry. And during my career in the House and also last couple years here in the Senate, you know, I’ve taken a position against gay marriage, rooted in part in my faith and my faith tradition. And had a very personal experience, which is my son came to Jane, my wife, and I, told us that he was gay and that it was not a choice and that, you know he, that’s just part of who he is, and he’d been that way ever since he could remember.”
Portman said his son’s revelation led him to drop his opposition to same-sex marriage. “And that launched an interesting process for me, which was kind of rethinking my position,” he said. “You know, talking to my pastor and other religious leaders and going through a process of, at the end, changing my position on the issue. I now believe people ought to have the right to get married.”
The response to this development puzzled me. Not on the right, where their condemnation was sickening, yet not surprising. But the response from Democrats / left-leaning people was.
My reaction was simple: this is good news, and Portman is to be praised for this. It doesn’t make me a supporter, it doesn’t make me think he is not conservative, it doesn’t make me think he’ll do the right thing beyond this one statement. I’m not sure if he’s made a statement about DOMA, or plans to sponsor the Respect for Marriage Act that would repeal DOMA. I doubt it, just as I doubt that he’ll support ENDA, which bars discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. So this is a small step. That doesn’t mean it’s not an important one. I’ll say this for posterity, as I think in the future this won’t be obvious, but the Republican Party is in near unanimous opposition to marriage equality, and the Democratic Party was largely opposed to it not that long ago, yet we’re at a moment when the tide is turning fast, as it’s obvious to almost everyone (regardless of whether they will admit it) that this fight will be won. The fight is over how long it will take, not whether. See the latest polling here:
It will be easier for additional Republicans to take the same position now that Portman has taken this step. Whether anyone will take this opportunity is a separate question, and I don’t know the answer.
But the reaction from many others was to attack Portman. Why did it take so long? Why was he incapable of changing until his son informed him that he was gay? (Implicitly, much of this seemed to assume Portman had people in his life who were out other than his son which did not lead him to rethink his views. It’s not clear to me why we should make this assumption.) But not just Portman – Republicans have an empathy gap. They are only capable of empathy with people who are like them or their immediate family members. Taking a stand for marriage equality for this reason was occasion for score, taking a stand only for marriage equality was too little, too late.
That Republicans officials largely lack empathy for those they don’t immediately identify with I’ll buy. That Democratic officials are categorically different (i.e. are broadly empathetic) assumes facts not in evidence.
Portman’s position is the same as Barack Obama’s present position, as of last May – that this question should be settled democratically at the state level. There are 22 Democrats in the Senate who have not yet co-sponsored the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA, and 41 Democrats in the House. There are deep Blue States which haven’t enacted marriage equality yet. So even if you look at this issue purely through a moral lens, which I can certainly understand, there are still lots of Democrats that are worse than Portman. This is undeniably true even though on average Democrats are far better. (This all isn’t to say that I can’t understand why some feel his position is inadequate–I agree–or still harbor anger for his earlier position. My point is about the relative treatment.) And obviously, the potential for empathy gaps aren’t limited to this issue – see this post by Raina Khalek for a good example.
Besides that, judging politicians for their motives is something I just find bizarre. You don’t think Democrats take politics into account when they do things? You don’t think personal interactions and hearing people’s stories have brought Democrats around on this issue? Wouldn’t you rather have someone do the right thing for the wrong reason than the wrong thing? As W. Lance Bennett said:
Of all the elements of social action, motives are the least subject to proof or disproof. Therefore, the structures of accounts built around motives seldom involve factual propositions or detailed descriptions of behavior. To the contrary, as Burke has shown so brilliantly, representations of motives are often most effective and acceptable when the details of a situation are transformed or redefined into a stock scenario in which a claimed motive fits comfortably with familiar and standardized representations of actors, acts, means, and scenes. In judging such claims about motives, issues of truth or sincerity are of little consequence. The relevant consideration is whether or not a claimed motive fits plausibly within the surrounding structure of action.
As I was watching all this unfold, it occurred to me that there is a fundamental divide for those that follow and/or engage in politics that this incident, and the reactions to it, highlighted. Do you use politicians to advance your cause? Or do you use causes to advance politicians? I don’t think this is typically a matter of explicit, thought out, strategy–although it should be. It is more of an inclination.
But here’s the thing. Our greatest power is in pressuring our allies in our places: liberals in blue states. They need to claim their own liberalism–and this is true even if they shy away from the word. It is what they use to garner votes and donations. A bunch of liberal people pointing out that their claims about themselves are not matched by their actual positions would put them in a bad spot. Where we have the least power is over conservatives in red states. Yet these are the people we are hyper-focused on. Or, more generally, our focus tends to be where we are powerless, while we ignore those places where we have more power.
In terms of strategy, Portman should be pressed to tell us his position on the Respect for Marriage Act, and if he won’t support it, explain why given his statement. While we’re at it, he should be asked how it fits with ‘limited government’ and ‘federalism’ to have Congress deem some marriages, done in accordance with state law, less equal than others. If it is truly for states to decide, as he’s suggested, than why should Congress interfere with it.
But beyond that, this announcement gives great leverage over Democrats who need to be moved in the right direction. Demanding answers as to why they are to the right of Rob Portman (and Dick Cheney) would seem like a good idea. And some people are getting the message: Hilary Clinton announced her support for marriage equality today.
It’s amazing though to see how much our the institutional infrastructure on the left is designed to get us angry over things conservatives are doing instead of mobilizing to achieve liberal victories. Marriage equality is a good model where activists have pushed, and contested, and it’s brought about significant change. And they didn’t let up on people who were supposedly allies but were unwilling to get on board. And now those allies are increasingly taking the more popular position, which may reap political benefits for them. That’s an important part of why this issue is changing so rapidly. It should be adopted across the board. Change comes through contestation. Demanding something that once seemed impossible is how you make it possible. Politicians are a means, not an end. They aren’t your friend. And they have all sorts of pressure bearing down on them to pay you lip service and not deliver. And when you act like you’re on the same team, you’re the one who gets used.