Rob Portman’s Liberal Critics Are Dead Wrong

How you look at things.
March 18 2013 10:02 AM

Rob Portman’s Empathy Problem

Lefty bloggers call him obtuse for endorsing gay marriage only after his son came out. They should look in the mirror.

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Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) at the Republican National Convention, Aug. 29, 2012

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Hypocrite. Narcissist. Wingnut. Bigot. Those are some of the epithets—not counting the expletives—that have been hurled at Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, since he announced Friday that he now supports same-sex marriage because his son is gay. But these epithets aren’t coming from the right. They’re coming from the left.

According to liberal columnists and bloggers, Portman’s conversion—the first on this issue by any Republican senator—is too little, too late, and short on “empathy.” But it isn’t Portman who’s having an empathy problem. It’s his critics. They don’t really understand Portman, conservatives, empathy, or how people change.

Portman’s detractors claim he “didn’t take a stand for … other people’s children” and showed “absolutely no genuine empathy … for the other approximately 11,699,999 LGBT in the United States.” That isn’t true. In an op-ed explaining his conversion, Portman wrote that “all of our sons and daughters ought to have the same opportunity to experience the joy and stability of marriage.” He said Congress should repeal the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denies federal marriage benefits, such as joint tax filing, to legally married same-sex couples.

To cast Portman as a hypocrite, his critics point out that he voted to prohibit adoptions by gay couples in the District of Columbia and to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. What they don’t mention is that these votes took place 14 and nine years ago, respectively. In the evolution of this issue, that’s an eternity. Until 10 months ago, no major presidential candidate in either party had endorsed gay marriage.

The critics claim that in an interview last year, Portman—knowing at that point that his son was gay—opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and was “endorsing discriminatory policies.” That isn’t true, either. The transcript shows he ducked the question, changed the subject, and concluded that while “no one should discriminate,” we “have to be careful” how we write such bills. In the video, you can see how uncomfortable he is. Around the same time, a lesbian met with Portman’s staff about a job discrimination complaint and came away hopeful that he’d support ENDA. She doesn’t really know what he’d do. Neither do we.

Portman says his longtime opposition to same-sex marriage “was rooted in my faith tradition.” His critics, apparently baffled by religion, ignore this explanation. Instead, they depict his position as an emotional void, concluding that he “did not care about any of the country's gay people.” According to my colleague Matthew Yglesias, “what Portman is telling us” is that “his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy.”

This insensitivity, in the eyes of Portman’s hecklers, explains conservative positions generally. What defines conservatism, they argue, is a “total absence of empathy,” a “fundamental lack of compassion,” and “an inability to give any weight to the perspective of the disadvantaged.” As Yglesias puts it: “Rob Portman doesn't have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who's locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn't have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn't have a son who'll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn't care.” The possibility that anyone might limit the food-stamp budget or the government’s role in health care for reasons other than indifference—say, a belief in markets or in fiscal self-restraint—goes unmentioned.

The bigger this empathy critique gets—the more it reaches beyond Portman and his son toward a grand theory of the GOP—the less it’s about empathy. At its core, empathy is one person’s feeling for another. That’s what gets lost in the political indictments. “Why must empathy among conservatives be tied so directly to their own personal interactions?” asks one writer. Another objects that Portman

“was only able to realize the error of his ways when his own flesh and blood bravely stood up and said ‘Hey, you're talking about me too.’ That's what it took. None of the studies, the rallies, the protests, the legal victories, the testimonials, the documentaries, articles, books, plays, movies, television shows or anything could sway him … To me that indicates that there's a pretty thick wall separating his political convictions from the rest of the world.”

Really? To me it just confirms that flesh-and-blood relationships are more powerful than studies, rallies, or documentaries. That isn’t a conservative defect. It’s human psychology. In academic circles, it’s called contact theory. It’s how President Obama explained his conversion on gay marriage last May: “Over the course of several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together …”

Where were all these critics then?

Portman, like Obama, initially resisted gay marriage on religious grounds. Like Obama, he took years to integrate his beliefs with his experience. “I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister,” Portman writes. “Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.”

Some critics, contemptuous of religion, sneer at Portman for consulting Scripture after his son’s revelation. Others, unable or unwilling to see the son’s effect on the father as moral, reduce their relationship to a cost-benefit transaction. Jonathan Chait likens Portman’s shift to changing your position on the estate tax based on a “newly discovered self-interest” in your kids’ inheritance. Paul Krugman, disappointed that Portman changed positions only after realizing that “his own family would benefit,” laments the “cramped vision of altruism in which it’s considered perfectly acceptable to support only those causes that are directly good for you and yours.” But what’s truly cramped is this sort of hyper-rational analysis, which misconstrues parental love as economic calculation.

Many of these writers—Yglesias, Chait, Krugman, Steve Benen, and others—are people I respect. When I try to understand their misperceptions of Portman, my best guess (which, to take my own point, could be wrong) is that they haven’t experienced what Portman is going through. 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.

At its heart, Portman’s story isn’t about politicians or parties. It’s about moms, dads, sons, and daughters. That’s what Ari Ezra Waldman captures in his beautiful, perceptive essay in Towleroad. Waldman understands Portman’s struggle because he has lived it. He came out to his mother at 21—not much older than Will Portman. “The reflection and evolution that changed the Portman family are the same changes and evolutions going on in countless families across the world right now, as more bright young men and women come out,” Waldman writes. When parents “learn that their child or their friend is gay, they put a human face to the phenomenon and suddenly, being gay doesn't seem so strange.” But absorbing this revelation takes time. For most parents, Waldman observes, the revelation “is just the beginning of a journey. It is a journey we can neither deny them nor rush for them. We can only support them and teach them along the way.”

Rob Portman’s journey, and ours, will take time. Be patient. Be welcoming. Be kind.

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