Sen. Rob Portman’s sudden reversal of his long-held and vocally expressed revulsion toward everything gay—including marriage—is being hailed by some as a virtuous, generous, open-minded and courageous act. It is nothing of the sort.
Portman’s change was precipitated by the fact that his own son….that is, a real person he cares about…revealed that he was gay, requiring Portman to choose between following through, in ways that would, for the first time, have unpleasant personal consequences, on his supposedly deeply held, faith-based opposition to gay rights in America, or to abandon those core moral beliefs in the time it takes to throw out an ill-fitting pair of pants. What Portman has gone through is a classic “foxhole conversion,” in the manner of the atheist who suddenly finds God when death is near and it seems wise to hedge his bets.
There is nothing courageous or admirable about this at all. To the contrary, it proves that Portman’s earlier position condemning people like his son was based on political expediency, ignorance, recklessness, cold disregard for anyone not like him, or dishonesty, and I really don’t care which.
We have seen such conduct from the Right before, memorably in Dan Quayle’s admission that despite his absolute conviction, or so he had said, that abortion was morally wrong and ought to be illegal even in cases of rape or incest, he would, hypothetically, support his teen-aged daughter’s decision to have an abortion because he loved her. We have seen it from the Left, too, as in the situation memorably dramatized in the film “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” Individuals who advocate political, economic, moral and policy positions that they would oppose in the jerk of a knee if they had real, personal consequences are undercover hypocrites. They have not applied the Golden Rule; how they would feel if the were in the position of those whose lives they so cavalierly would affect has never entered their consciousness. What this flip-flop tells us about Sen. Rob Portman is that nobody should respect or take notice of what he thinks or says he thinks, and that having such a man casting one of a hundred votes in the U.S. Senate means that the body is, at best, only 99% responsible, competent or trustworthy.
Naturally, the hard left is now writing that Portman is typical of all Republicans and all conservatives:
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he’s come over to our side (we have cookies!), but this reveals exactly why Republican politicians suck. They don’t think about things from other people’s perspective. They don’t have to struggle to eat, so they don’t think about what happens when they cut food stamps and people who already have too little to eat have even less. They have retirement savings and won’t have to depend on Social Security, so they don’t think about how gutting SS effects people who depend on it to survive. They can afford their own healthcare without any problem, so this big scary Obamacare mandate is all bad news, it can’t possibly help people who have no insurance now and just pray they don’t get sick or injured, because it doesn’t help them. They just end up paying extra taxes for people who are lazy, right?”
This is the product of a hardened and doctrinaire mind incapable of comprehending that such positions can be (and often are) well-reasoned, objective and wise, precisely because they omit the convulsing influences of emotion. The passage (one of the more restrained in the post) is grossly unfair to thoughtful and honest conservatives, but it is 100% accurate as it applies to Portman and those like him. Here is Rachel Maddow expressing the same reaction in a somewhat more measured fashion:
“To be sure, I’m genuinely glad Portman has done the right thing, and can only hope it encourages other Republicans to do the same. What I find discouraging, though, is that the Republican senator was content to support discriminatory policies until they affected someone he personally cares about. What about everyone else’s sons and daughters? Why must empathy among conservatives be tied so directly to their own personal interactions?“
Of course, the supposed empathy of liberals is never tied to personal and political gain, right Rachel? That, however, is a different matter. Portman, who was at one point the consensus front-runner to be the GOP Vice Presidential nominee, has shown that Maddow’s assessment is accurate in his case, and thus makes all of his political and ideological allies suspect. Moreover, I have no doubt that many of his political and ideological allies are exactly like he is, with all the integrity of a crepe paper life-jacket.
Yes. I agree with Maddow and The Daily Kos: Portman’s previous position was wrong, and the one he has now latched onto for the sake of his son is better. But neither were reached through any form of objective ethical analysis, and he deserves all the credit due to a falling piano that accidentally squashes a street mugger instead of his victim.
UPDATE: Here is Ann Althouse’s typically trenchant take, written before mine, but I just read it.
Sources: Daily Kos, Columbus Dispatch, AP, MSNBC
8 thoughts on “No Hero He: Sen. Portman Demonstrates How To Make Doing The Right Thing Look Terrible”
Agree with you. This is the problem with all ideologically-based positions… either right or left. Take a stand, support it vociferously and publicly, then suddenly when or if it affects you personally, make a total reversal based on emotion/familial ties., etc. Whom do we (can we) trust? These are the people making our public policy?
Portman sacrificed principle for politics; pure and simple. There’s a lot of that going around! Too much. From Democrats, it’s more or less expected. But when Republicans do it, they undermine the very foundations of the platform and place themselves back in the morass of being “watered down” Democrats.
Jack, I made a point to read Portman’s statement before I read your article and, while your interpretation may be a valid response his change of position and could even be the correct one; I don’t think it is the most charitable one. Instead of being the moral equivalent of nepotism, Portman’s actions may simply be the result of hard thinking on a moral issue brought on by the unexpected and courageous revelation made by his youngest son. It took me a long time to come to terms with my sexuality and to become comfortable with myself. I have learned to accept the fact that I am gay and to be as proud of it as I am of any other aspect of my self that I have no control over. For along time after I had reached this point though, I preferred to be discreet about my sexuality, reasoning that it was a private matter and that it was nobody’s business. However, over time I came to see (thanks to the example of many courageous younger people) that my being quiet about being gay was doing a disservice to everyone else in my position and even to heterosexual people who expressed casual ignorance about and prejudice towards gay people. I believe that the remarkable change in attitude towards gay people we have witnessed in our country is precisely because gay people have stood up and said, “I’m gay” to friends, loved ones, and society at large. By doing so, they have not only empowered themselves, but they have helped the people close to them to see gay people as individuals, not just as some reviled “other”. Coming out informs the debate. It helps people to see their prejudices. I, like most people who’ve come out to their friends and family, have been gratified to find that most people who liked and respected my before they knew I was gay, felt the same way afterwards. However, some of them were required by the information to reassess some of their basic beliefs. I prefer to think this is what Sen. Portman did in response to his son’s coming out. I think we owe it to people to evaluate their actions in the most favorable light. The truth is, we don’t know his motives, his action, in this case, is laudable. While I am anything but a Christian Conservative and would not be surprised to find that I disagree with Sen. Portman on a whole slew of issues, I think your analysis is unfair.
“Instead of being the moral equivalent of nepotism, Portman’s actions may simply be the result of hard thinking on a moral issue brought on by the unexpected and courageous revelation made by his youngest son.”
But that’s the point. He’s a U.S. Senator. He makes laws that have profound, life altering effects on people’s lives. He’s been saying for years not only that he opposes same sex marriage, but that he doesn’t think laws should stop employers from choosing not to hire gays. If he hasn’t done hard thinking about such issues before taking strong and influential positions on them, then he’s an irresponsible, lazy, reckless incompetent.It shouldn’t take his son to make him think carefully, fairly and analytically! His job is to think about these issues carefully, fairly and well whether they directly affect him and his family or not.
That’s hard, you say? Of course it’s hard, and not everyone can do it. Those who can’t do it have no business being Senator, or a judge, or anyone who makes decisions that affect other people’s lives.
My analysis, if anything, was overly kind.
Jack, If you are suggesting that Portman’s previous belief that it is moral to deny a significant percentage of the population their basic human rights shows that he is not qualified to be a Senator, then I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t agree, however, that it is proper to brand him a hypocrite and a flip flopper because he realized the error of his beliefs. Who knows, maybe he is a hypocrite. Maybe his decision was strictly for political gain and not “reached through any form of objective ethical analysis”. The point is, I don’t know and, I suspect, either do you. If your post had congratulated Sen. Portman for his change of heart but then gone on to say it didn’t erase his previous unethical conduct and that his previous conduct should eliminate him from being considered as qualified for his office, I would not have posted my reply. Instead, the text and tone of your analysis is harsh and vindictive. I, can certainly understand your anger at his previous position, but what is the point of trying to change minds if we’re going to castigate and question the motives of those who actually do change their minds? When my dad said, “I love you, your my son, I don’t care if you’re gay”, I didn’t immediately harangue him about every time he had used an anti gay slur in the past, I hugged him.
I agree with you that Sen. Portman isn’t ethically qualified to do his job. Not only because of his past behavior, but because, throughout his entire statement, he didn’t apologize. That, to my mind, is the ethical lapse most evident in this instance.
I am taking his actions as you took them: he didn’t bother to think about this issue beyond political expediency until it was close to home. That’s a disqualifier, not his previous opinion on gay marriage. The latter is a legitimate opinion, indeed once this President’s position, and probably every President’s position–the position, if sincerely held and reached with appropriate seriousness, isn’t disqualifying in the least. That’s a silly statement. And his former position is definitely not immoral–indeed, it is dictated by conventional morality even now.
But if he shot off his mouth expounding this position without ever before asking himself “would I consider this position valid if my own son were gay? If I would not, then is it still a valid position?” then he is an ethics dunce, and an irresponsible legislator and public servant. Or as Ann Althouse wrote:
“Imagine if he announced as a general principle: When governmental policies affects close intimates of mine, I will reframe my positions so that their interests are served.”
I DO know what prompted his opinion, and so do: he had to “put his money where his mouth was.” Or do you believe that the fact that he was faced with the choice of rejecting his son or rejecting a political position that was becoming a liability anyway was just a coincidence?
I am NOT criticizing him for changing his mind; I am criticizing him for reaching his original opinion unethically, without, apparently, even considering affected Americans and their families. I am NOT criticizing him for his original position (though I disagree with it); I am criticizing him for not having any integrity. I am NOT criticizing your Dad for flip-flopping: he wasn’t a U.S. Senator, and didn’t have an solemn obligation to be more careful about his positions. Lots of people have ignorant positions, and if you have never lived with blacks, or had any contact with gays, or know any Jews, and then absorb the biases of people around you and end up believing bigoted nonsense that you seldom have reason to consider more than casually because it’s not your job to think about such things, ok. I understand that, and I completely sympathize with those people who then learn better and change their minds. But they would also be unqualified to be Senator and to make pronouncements on race relations or gay rights of Israel.
Portman is not like your Dad. He had a duty to think carefully before he made speeches and went on TV saying that gays were not the same as other citizens. I don’t recall you Dad making these pronouncements on CNN. Portman, unlike your Dad, had a special duty to know what he was talking about. He didn’t. I don’t know if he was ignorant then or is being expedient now, or lying then or lying now, but there is no explanation for his journey that doesn’t make him look either too ignorant, lazy, callous, stupid, or dishonest to be a high elected official.
Which is what I wrote.
Poor excuse for defending Gay Marriage. “When my kid does something it is OK”. That’s as bad as the person last week who defended DOMA by saying ” DOMA should not be repealed because two homosexual people can’t become pregnant accidentally.” What nitwits!
Whoa! I can’t get my mind around that one.