Rob Portman, Charles Murray, and the Conservative Challenge of Breaking Ranks on Gay Marriage


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A few years ago I heard a very strange argument against gay marriage. The person making it was a right-leaning libertarian pundit, and the argument went like this: "I'm opposed to gay marriage because gay people don't actually want to get married." The (straight) pundit claimed to know a gay person who felt this way. I also knew some gay people, and had access to this thing called the Internet, which is full of gays, and I was hearing exactly the opposite. I left the encounter thinking the pundit wanted to impress someone he perceived to be a fellow right-winger (I was working for The Daily Caller at the time) with a contrarian argument, but that he didn't actually believe what he was saying. 

Then I read The New Yorker's CPAC dispatch about Charles Murray's support for gay marriage: 

Murray said his own views had been influenced heavily by friends. "I was dead-set against gay marriage when it was first broached," Murray said; as a fan of Edmund Burke, he regarded marriage as an ancient and indispensable cultural institution that "we shouldn't mess with." He used to agree with his friend Irving Kristol, the late father of neo-conservatism, that gay people wouldn't like marriage. "?'Let them have it,'?" he recounted Kristol as saying, with a chuckle. "?'They wont like it.'?" Murray said that he himself used to think that "All they want is the wedding, and the party, and the honeymoon—but not this long thing we call marriage."

But since then, Murray said, "we have acquired a number of gay and lesbian friends," and to what he jokingly called his "dismay" as a "confident" social scientist, he learned he'd been wrong.

….Further, Murray said, he had discovered that the gay couples he knew with children were not just responsible parents; they were "excruciatingly responsible parents."

I knew that Murray had recently changed his mind about gay marriage, but I didn't know why. The answer–that he made some gay friends, and that those gay friends demonstrated to him that the straw-gay he and Irving Kristol and the nameless pundit all had constructed was exactly that–is actually kind of important. The day before Murray's CPAC speech, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the master debater who prepared Team Romney for the presidential debates, shocked his colleagues by giving a similar explanation for his evolution on gay marriage:

Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. He said he'd known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn't something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is. Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he'd always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.

At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.

Portman has received more flack from the left than from his fellow conservatives. Matt Yglesias called the decision narcissistic, and Jon Chait argued that Portman's reasoning reflects a conservative "inability to give any weight to the perspective of the disadvantaged." This is, of course, concern trolling at its most formulaic–10 percent approval, 90 percent goal-post moving. 

But I think there's an important lesson to be learned here, and I'm as guilty of forgetting it as anyone: A lot of people feel they need a morally superior reason to break ranks with their tribe; one that's more righteous and admirable than the discipline it takes to adhere to dogma or code. In politics the need for permission only increases as people become more prominent and powerful. (A great fictional example is Michael Douglas's drug czar character in Traffic, who renounces the drug war after his daughter starts hooking to get high.) This is how it works for so many issues important to libertarians–foreign policy, prison reform, gay marriage, immigration, drugs, asset forfeiture. People change their minds when their kid gets blown to bits by an IED, gets locked up for dealing, or falls in love with a day laborer. Condemning people for not coming around sooner, or for not coming around on more issues, is also a part of tribalism, but I can't really see what it accomplishes.