We all had our guesses on why Sen. Rob Portman wanted to see us last Thursday in his office for what was billed as a major announcement.
A deal to clear the way for confirmation of Richard Cordray to head the federal consumer financial agency? An announcement that he would form a presidential exploratory committee? Or perhaps a way to solve the budget impasse between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans.
Instead, he told us — reporters representing The Dispatch, The Dayton Daily News, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer and the Cincinnati Enquirer — that he had reversed his longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage. And the reason? His 21-year-old son, Will, had told Portman and his wife, Jane, that he is gay.
Now that was a surprise.
There were more surprises to follow. Portman, who normally displays all the emotion of a computer and has never met a political risk he likes, talked in very personal terms about how he and his wife love Will and want him to have the same opportunities to marry as his older brother and younger sister.
“It’s a change of a heart from the position of a father,” Portman said. “If anything, I’m even more proud of the way he has handled the whole situation. He’s an amazing young man.”
Portman would not even venture a guess of whether his change of heart will hurt him politically among the social conservatives who have such a major say in the Republican Party.
But one thing is certain: It will have an impact, particularly if Portman decides to run for president in 2016. The first stop is Iowa, and the fact that former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — a staunch social conservative — won last year tells you everything you need to know about Iowa Republicans.
“At first glance, it will hurt him,” said David Yepsen, former political editor of The Des Moines Register and now a professor of public policy at Southern Illinois University. ” This is clearly an issue that is important to a lot of Republican caucus-goers. He has changed his position in a way that a lot of people will adamantly disagree with.
“That said, not all Republicans take that position,” Yepsen said. “A lot of Republicans are at least willing to hear him out. If he’s serious about running for president, he will have to go out there, meet with lots of people and go through his position. They’re not going come away agreeing with him, but at least they will respect his integrity and the process he went through.”
And if Portman chooses to seek re-election to the Senate in 2016? Well, the old rule is that timing is everything in politics. A decade ago, such a change would have provoked intense outrage from many conservative Republicans.
But as Yepsen pointed out, “public opinion is changing rapidly” on same-sex marriage. At least half of American voters now support same-sex marriage, and more states will legalize it. Among voters under age 40, the reaction is, “Why is this even an issue?”
Instead, the great majority of Americans value “accomplishments more than ideology,” as former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas once said. Ohio voters gravitate toward the sober and vanilla types, such as state Attorney General Mike DeWine or former Gov. George V. Voinovich.
Portman comes from that mold. He is like the really smart accountant you trust with your taxes. Although he opposed same-sex marriage in his career, he rarely talked about it or any other social issue. He wants to talk economics, budgets, taxes and international trade.
“I think that anybody who hears him talk about this and understands the place where this comes from can’t help but admire the position he has taken,” said one analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everybody is influenced by what happens in their own lives. I think he’s taking a courageous, principled position on an issue that a lot of Americans are changing their views on.”
Jack Torry is chief of the Dispatch Washington bureau. Contact him at email@example.com