Why was Rob Portman’s stroke of empathy so shocking?

A prominent Senator announcing that he has broken with his party to take a position of basic decency and empathy should not be so unusual that it becomes front page news.

But that is exactly what happened when Ohio Sen. Rob Portman announced that, inspired by his gay son coming out two years ago, he now supports marriage equality.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)

Sen. Portman came at his change of heart the same way millions of Americans have — by recognizing that anti-gay politics do real harm to someone he loves. He now joins the majority of Americans who favor marriage equality.

The difference is, Sen. Portman isn’t just any American. He’s a member of a small and exclusive club that brooks no deviation from its far-right ideology.

Like many of his fellow Republican leaders, he is in a bind if he wants to reject any part of his party’s orthodoxy. It took a particular confluence of circumstances — his son coming out and a watershed election for gay rights — to get him to buck his party on just this one issue.

I’m glad that Sen. Portman has found the decency, at least on this issue, to realize that public policy can cause personal harm. But the fact that this nation-wide wave of empathy hadn’t until today breached the highest levels of the Republican Party — and that it was a surprise when it did — shows just how far out of the mainstream the party has gone.

It’s become a given and a matter of fact that basic equality is a strongly partisan issue.

Sen. Portman wasn’t elected to represent the best interests of just his family. And he is surely not the first or only prominent Republican to have a close friend or family member who is gay. But he is one of the first to find it politically advantageous — or at least not political suicide — to support marriage equality while still in office.

That says much more about the disconnect between Republican orthodoxy and American values than it says about Sen. Portman’s change of heart.

Many are rightly pointing out that Sen. Portman should use this experience to try out some empathy for some other groups that might not be represented in his immediate family — low-income people, immigrants, people denied insurance coverage for preexisting conditions, union members, pregnant teenagers, people who have to wait seven hours to vote, etc.

These are all issues on which, like gay rights, most Americans have more nuanced and empathetic views than the leaders of the Republican Party. As has been pointed out, if some Republican senators’ daughters come out as female, then maybe we’d have a chance of equal rights for women.

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Let’s hope that Sen. Portman’s change of heart on marriage equality isn’t just an anomaly, but that instead it’s a visible crack in the foundation of a Republican Party that has allowed itself to be taken over and ruled by a dogmatic right-wing fringe.

For too long, Republican elected officials have been required to leave their empathy at the door and have been forbidden to break with party orthodoxy on any issue at all. Even former “mavericks” like Sen. John McCain have fallen in line when threatened with Tea Party primary challenges.

Let’s hope that more Republicans follow Sen. Portman to a position of decency on gay rights. And then that Sen. Portman and his colleagues can break free of Tea Party dogma and consider empathy for the millions of Americans to whom they are not related.

It will be a great day when a Republican senator taking a position of basic decency isn’t news at all.

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