Great dad, awful policy

The Discomfort Zone

This week was a big one for advocates of marriage equality. On Friday, Ohio senator Rob Portman endorsed same-sex marriage, citing his own son’s coming out as the basis for his change of heart. Then on Monday, former Secretary of State and one-time Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton threw her support behind equal marriage rights in a YouTube video posted by the Human Rights Campaign, one of the country’s most prominent gay rights organizations. These are good things.

But there is an inherent difference between the two – in Clinton’s online interview, she characterizes “gay rights as human rights,” implying that to deny equal treatment and opportunity to all gay Americans would be an explicit violation of Constitutional rights. Senator Portman, bless his heart, does not quite make it so far.

The Ohio Republican, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, was an avowed opponent of marriage equality until he was for it (as was Secretary Clinton). He also voted to prevent gay couples from adopting children and has been consistent opponent of gay rights throughout his Congressional career. Portman, regardless of what he may believe now, has a lot of ground to make up if he wants to prove he can be a vociferous ally of gay Americans in this country.

And you don’t have to read into his voting record or to which church he belongs in order to see how much further he has to go.

In his revelatory Friday interview with CNN, Portman spoke of how his son’s coming out enabled the senator “to think of this from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have.” My takeaway from this segment is that Rob Portman is a good father, but a terrible policy-maker and advocate for civil rights.

Nowhere in Portman’s interview does he come close to suggesting that his rethinking of his position on gay marriage has altered his conception of other human rights issues. In 2011 he voted to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act, a Bush-era relic that permits unwarranted surveillance on American citizens and delayed notification of search-and-seizure operations by authorities. Portman also has a daughter, a fact that apparently changes nothing about his position on abortion and securing federal dollars for Planned Parenthood – the vital women’s health provider that he voted to defund in 2011. Regardless of where he is now on gay marriage, his “new perspective” apparently does not extend so far as to include women’s health and expanded protections for civil liberties.

Make no mistake – Senator Portman’s conversion to the marriage equality cause is a good thing. One could view it as a reaffirmation of the great American tradition “of changing one’s mind.” But if Portman has accomplished anything with his turn of position it is that he has shown how comfortable he is with “government by anecdote.” Unless an issue affects him or his family directly, you are not likely to see him as your advocate. Perhaps this more than anything else explains his unequivocal support for regressive Republican economic policies that seek to, as President Bush put it, “balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

I would like to think that Rob Portman’s evolution on gay marriage makes him not just a great dad, but also a cogent and thoughtful policy-maker. But until he reworks his logic on the issue to be more than a personal story made political, I doubt any serious progress on other significant issues of civil liberty and social equality.

President Obama last year announced his support for same-sex marriage. In an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC, he spoke of “the pain” that gay Americans feel as being considered “less than full citizens when it comes to their legal rights,” in addition to his own family’s relationship with the issue. While I have deep reservations on other civil rights issues with regard to our President – like the drug war and CIA’s drone program – it is clear his “evolved” view of marriage equality stems from more than just personal interaction.

And, as indicated earlier, Senator Portman’s announcement came within just a few days of Hillary Clinton’s. While Clinton offered us sweeping condemnations of anti-gay bigotry and a vision for equality that includes gay and lesbian Americans’ rights among others, Senator Portman tells us he changed his mind because of his family. And while that may make him “Republican Dad of the Year,” it does not make him any better of an advocate for Americans’ civil liberties.

Image source: See-ming Lee via creative commons.

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @noahkulwin.