This week, Ohio’s Rob Portman became the first Republican Senator to openly support gay marriage.  First in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Dana Bash and again in an OpEd for a right-leaning traditional news publication based in Central Ohio.

There seem to be two schools of reactions from the left.  One is a genuine embrace of his changed stance as an ally for an issue important to most on the left.  The other is lukewarm acceptance coupled with “yeah, but what about these other issues” criticism.

I’m pretty firmly in the first camp.  I don’t think you can work so hard to make well thought out and logical arguments for an issue and not allow someone on the opposing side the space to change their minds.  It’s the point of political discourse, really.  That’s not to say that arguments against the politics of narcissism aren’t valid.  I just find it better to say thank you and not “thank you, but…”

Senator Portman deserves credit for doing something that anyone who supports gay marriage wanted him to do – support it.  No qualifications.  He did the right thing and did so by going against two thirds of his own party on the issue.  That’s a BFD for someone who has never lost an election.

I think the story is very instructive on a larger level when we look at both Democrat and Republican Party politics.

Republicans seem only able to empathize with certain situations if they are actually in them.  Democrats, on the other hand, seem to be able to empathize and relate to others without having to directly experience what they are going through in their lives.

Portman had an opinion on an issue that changed once he had a personal experience with the issue.  Many on the right exhibit this same kind of behavior.  You’ll remember Sarah Palin railing on almost every kind of government social spending – except additional aid for disabled children.  Because she had a disabled child herself.

This is one reason why I define myself as a Democrat and liberal and not a Republican or conservative.

It’s another reason that I value my (on again/off again) Buddhist practice.  Meditation and mindfulness naturally breaks down our notion of who we are and expands that notion outward until we see ourselves as part of everyone and everything else.  We are all one.

Many on the right like to make fun of this notion and Congressman Tim Ryan has been excoriated by them for writing a book on mindfulness.  They point and laugh mainly because they have no understanding.  Tim Ryan is right.  The difference between Congressman Ryan and Senator Portman is one doesn’t need to have personal experience to see oneself in others’ experiences.  I would argue Ryan’s Democratic view is a more evolved version of empathy than Portman’s Republican view.  I would also argue that mindfulness has a great deal to do with the ability to see the world in this way.

You develop empathy outward.  We are all naturally empathetic to our own experiences.  Slightly more difficult, but still natural is empathy toward the lives of our family.  This expands further to those we know – neighbors, co-workers, etc.  The most difficult to develop is empathy for complete strangers or those we have very little, if anything, in common with.  It’s why it’s so easy for us to start wars with brown people in far away lands.

Portman coming out in support of gay marriage is a positive sign that we are winning the issue.   It’s becoming more and more politically untenable to oppose it.  The arc of the universe is indeed bending toward equality for the gay community.  We should embrace Portman’s reversal.  We should also continue to develop and expand our circles of empathy and hope that Republicans will do so as well.

  • Natasha

    Although I respect Senator tor Portman’s choices in supporting his gay son’s right to marriage they are ironic and hypocritical of him to SPONSOR the Defense of Marriage Act, seek to be VP and flip to the Democrat position when his own skin is in the game. He’s more confused than his son must have been growing up with an ideologue who championed the GOP systemic bigotry.

    Of course it affects the Senator politically in spite of his denials. Perhaps he failed to become VP because of Mitt’s predilection for gay-bashing like what Mitt and his crew performed in the tony boarding school when high-school-Harry Romney gave a suspected gay kid a haircut and beating – for being different.

    Now if the rest of the GOP bigots and misogynists ever come to realize that their daughters are women; maybe we can move forward as a nation on real equality for all and the Republicans will holster their agenda of discrimination and hate. As for Portman, he’s just another hypocrite in the Senate who seeks more his kid and himself while suppressing opportunity for the rest of us in this nation

  • amyvav

    Eric – What a great post to start off the weekend! Thanks for throwing your personal views out there in an appropriate way. It’s a nice reminder for those of us who struggle to be mindful daily – and a nice little bit of curiosity for those who may wish to do a little googling and exploring. As for Mr. Portman, he can’t help but sense the wave of positive feelings over his absolutely BFD change in position. Good for him – and his family.

  • I don’t think he’s seeking opportunity for his kid at the expense of others. He’s changed his position BECAUSE of his kid and that has the opportunity to affect many others positively.

    It’s not hypocritical to change your position. It’s both natural and good. I think it’s counterproductive to continue to bash someone for exhibiting the precise behavior we’re trying to change. Portman is now a gay marriage and equality ally.

  • Thanks for the comment.

  • duckmonkeyman

    I disagree. Tactically, yes, we should applaud Portman’s position but not the man. He still is of the mind set of denying health care, retirement, education, and living wages to a majority of Americans simply because he has been privileged and fortunate. Republicans, including many suburban fools who are one pink slip or diagnosis from food stamps, should look at this action in the broader sense of stepping out of their clueless bubbles.

  • Babysteps…

  • Unconscious Conscience

    It is hypocritical when you or yours is a beneficiary of your change. Portman would not have considered change without having to face with the reality that he raised a gay son. He sponsored DOMA. His son and all other gay people who might seek the benefits of federally sanctioned marriage still don’t have them and Portman’s coming out for his son’s benefit does nothing to change the discriminatory aspects of DOMA. The forthcoming SCOTUS decision will be game-changer. Portman may have influenced it indirectly, although SCOTUS should not be affected by political posturing of a non-party grandstander. If Portman had any political balls to back his change of heart he would have signed (or sent) an Amicus brief to SCOTUS and maybe sponsored some legislation to dump DOMA. He is after all a sitting Senator.

    Portman has done nothing to demonstrate this so-called alliance other than talk. Portman’s had almost two years and a presidential campaign (in which he sought the GOP VP slot) to speak his mind and do something productive. It looks as if he’s only trying to be the Dad of a kid who came out – nothing more. We’ll see what he does to support and help his newly found position become governmental action. Don’t hold your breath!

  • Brian Davis

    I do hope that Representative Ryan puts his hat in the ring for governor.

  • He announced Friday that he is not going to.

  • jeffinohio

    One of many thoughtful posts I’ve read on Portman’s decision. Personally, I don’t care how Portman gets to where he is. What matters >WHAT REALLY MATTERS< is how he uses his new found revelation to secure marriage equality for all gay Americans, and in particular, Ohioans. He needs to put his political weight behind his belief in marriage equality and work towards overturning the 2004 ban and securing that right for all.

  • Unfortunately, he’s already announced he won’t be running.

    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

  • Retired Mercer

    What will it take for Sen. Portman to have a “change of heart” toward background checks of gun purchases and assault weapons/large magazine ban? Just wondering?

  • Great post, Eric. I could not agree more. There’s nothing wrong in critiquing a move like this or expressing the potential cynicism in it. But we can choose to describe how we hope it affects others and I really like how you have done that. I also happen to agree with your point about how this is what we want people to do – change their mind in a way that makes sense, and not only because it was convenient. I’ve often written about how I’m not a huge fan of asking people to apologize – I’d rather see them change their behavior and not make the error(s). Likewise, if Portman now has some window into seeing how empathy experienced when we dont have a personal connection can work and should be put to work to inform all policy making, that would be real leadership for his side of the aisle.

  • Green Iris

    Great post Eric.
    While I’m glad Portman has come out in support, I’m not optimistic about his working to overturn the laws. He’s already taking alot of heat from the RighTea. My call is that he gets primaried.

  • This is why we need to put “these” people in the position that ordinary people are in. They have no idea what it is like or how hard it is. When you grow up in a vacuum and you have never experienced such things as poverty and hunger, the desperate desire to have your child have a good start in school but not be able to pay for preschool, let alone every meal in the day, or health care. You do not know what it is like. If you do not come from a single parent family or be a child of divorce you do not know what it is like. Like the old proverb goes…live in another mans shoes before you judge him….. If those who are on the right and far right who are in the arena of making decisions for others did this not for a week or a month but for 3 months in a row with children..Let’s see how their perspectives change.

  • We also must look at the whole picture. Don’t get me wrong I am not “for” Portman. however he might not have felt he could voice his real opinion for gay rights because of the fact he wanted to be VP for a party who is against it. He might have felt great pressure (not that this is right or a good excuse) to voice an opinion he did not fully believe in. I am just glad that for whatever reason he has come around. For many people they have to experience something to understand it. For others they can see beyond what they have experienced. I understand the Republican views. I just do not agree with them. Does that make me bad because I understand and feel empathy for them? No because I believer we need to do what is best for all not just a few. I can see both sides, I can emphasize with the old white guy ideals that are slipping away and those who have benefited from them are feeling scared and betrayed because their way of life might slip away for something they do not understand. I understand that and feel sorry for them. I do not support anything they are saying right now, however if something should arise (I do not know what at this time) that I feel would benefit all… the poor, the middle class, and the upper class I would support that. It is sad though that they do not have open minds and can see beyond their own beliefs. Again I am glad for the change of mind of Portmen. I takes one to start a change.

  • Jor Dough

    Don’t be suckered by Republican rhetoric as they try to shift the low opinion of them that exists. Portman has done nothing that any loving father wouldn’t do and he will do nothing to endanger or diminish his political aura. Portman is all politics all the time and flits to wherever he “needs” to be to maintain his hold on his Senate seat. It’s all self-serving bullshit from Portman with NO effective action to overturn Portman’s own DOMA.

    The GOP is not giving up on its ritualistic gay bashing (While having plenty of gay people among its leadership and operative ranks.) Here’s what the Republican Conservative demi-goddess, Ann Coulter, had to say, via Twitter, as indirect advice to Poertman: “Last Thursday was national “coming out” day. This Monday is national “disown your son” day.

    The same warning applies to and can be said for Yost and his specious CPS investigation and his publicity-stunt subpoena on the DSA and “JobsOhio” records. So Yost gets the records and the details are held secret for five years thus firmly locking the door on open records whenever convenient for the corrupt Republicans among us (Just how long is the statute of limitations on the plethora of crimes that could be concealed during those five years?). Is Yost now the sole imprimatur of potentially public records and sole decider on what and what not should be public knowledge? Don’t also be fooled by Yost’s phoniness. He was a dishonest, incompetent moron in public office Delaware County and certainly has not received an ethics injection lately.

    All of these are Republican stunts to endear themselves to the “middle” while they continue to screw the vast (99%) of the national population. Kindness to an unfortunate father who tries to compensate for his own bigotry now that it is directed to his son is one thing. Getting sucked into a gleeful state by the politics Portman made of it all is a tragic mistake for those on the outside of that family. Nothing Portman does is outside of his own political sphere.

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