Whatever you think about the substance of the issue, it’s hard for me to see Portman’s flip on gay marriage as anything but Bad For The Right.
In terms of his own political future — and I’m not saying he was thinking this way — Portman is perhaps ideally positioned among national-profile Republicans to make a flip. Well-liked, high-character, good dude with conservative bona fides, but from a purple state that’s likely to deliver him as many votes on gay marriage as it is take them away. Plus, he’s still four years away from his next campaign.
But for the broader cultural debate, this is not going to be helpful. Even if you support some kind of conservative accommodation to same-sex unions, it’s not ideal to have conservatives “seeing the light” because it affects them personally, even if they couch their conversions, as Portman does, in terms of his gay son helping him “gain a new perspective.” Empathy is a crucial moral virtue, but it isn’t always the best guide to public-policy debates, pace our friends on the left.
Besides, there are big, angry blocs on both sides of the issue that are unlikely to give Portman the benefit of the doubt. (As I’m writing this, Matt Yglesias is insufferably tweeting about how global warming is going to wipe several small islands off the map and how it’s “too bad Portman’s son doesn’t live on one.”) It’s eerie how closely Portman’s CNN interview mirrored President Obama’s on the issue, right down to the torrent of disclaimers up front (“I just feel that for me personally it’s important to affirm. . .”). But unlike the famous evolver-in-chief — who was always given winking credit on the progressive left for being secretly pro-gay-marriage, even as he extolled traditional marriage — Portman is going to be treated as self-serving by majorities on both sides.
That’s a shame, because in a town full of bad seeds, he’s one of the good ones.