It gets better – you’ve seen those public service spots from the organization formed in response to the bullying that led to the suicide of one gay school kid after another. The message is simple. Hang in there. You can outlast the bullies. You’re not the weirdo and loser they say you are. Different is just different – different is neither bad nor good, so you can be a good person in your own way. Those of us who have been there know you can do it.
The spots exploded for a time and won an Emmy for “strategically, creatively and powerfully utilizing the media to educate and inspire” – something no one expected, but it was the bandwagon effect. Everyone wanted to present the message. Lots of celebrities did, and then a few professional athletes, then a few politicians, and finally Barack Obama. He knew a thing or two about people making fun of those who are different, like him. That did, however, mean that the message had broadened. It was no longer only about gay kids being bullied, it was about bullies in general picking on anyone they thought was useless scum. Then it went international and a book followed – It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living – but it was too late to refocus on the gay issue alone. Dan Savage, the gay activist who had started all this, had created an international movement to stand up to all bullies, or more precisely, to walk away from them, because they are unthinking fools and you have better things to do.
Mitt Romney didn’t participate. There was that incident at Cranbrook where he led a posse of his high-school buddies in terrorizing an effeminate kid who had long hair – they held him down and cut it off – all in good fun as Romney insisted. It didn’t help that the kid later came out as gay – or maybe that actually helped Romney win over the Republican base. They had no use for Dan Savage’s project, but what Romney did in high school was also of a piece with his forty-seven-percent comments – those extended remarks where he insisted that nearly half the citizens of the country are useless moochers who have no sense of personal responsibility and never will have one, so they should be ignored, or maybe they should just die or something. Those are the words of a schoolyard bully who likes to slap around the vulnerable kid and take his lunch money – in this case through the tax code and by making sure he can’t get health insurance or a college loan for his kids, or food stamps or unemployment insurance. This is contempt for the vulnerable – that’s their problem – and contempt for anyone who’s different, in unapproved ways. Mild eccentricities are accepted – see Donald Trump. Romney’s fine with him, even with that orange hair.
This created an odd fault line. Republicans became the party of proud bullies – in the primary debates the crowd booed that gay serviceman with a question from the front lines in Afghanistan, and cheered long and loud at the suggestion that someone who couldn’t afford to pay for private health insurance out of his own pocket should just die in the streets. Herman Cain talked about building an electrified fence along our border with Mexico, one that would fry to crisp any man, women or child who tried to get into our country, or who even touched that fence out of curiosity. He was cheered for that and the general message in all of this was that it doesn’t get better – not for the wrong sort of people.
Democrats went the other way. They usurped Dan Savage’s message – it does get better. Republicans said it would only get better when the Kenyan atheist-Muslim imposter in the White House was gone – and when everything in sight was deregulated and women stopped being sex-crazed sluts who murdered their own children. Democrats said hang in there – it gets better – and America decided they’d rather not have the bullies in charge.
Now it’s time for the proud bullies to regroup. That’s what the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC – sponsored by the American Conservative Union – is for. This is the big deal for that side – major donors get to see who’s hot and who’s not so hot anymore. This year Rand Paul and Marco Rubio seem to be hot, and Mitt Romney isn’t – his speech on the second day of the conference was received politely and graciously, if not enthusiastically. Good try, Mitt – you gave your best and you can go now. Donald Trump spoke to an empty room in the morning – “I’ve made over eight billion dollars! I’ve employed tens of thousands of people. And yet I’m continually criticized by total light weights all over the place. It’s unbelievable.”
His message was that Romney lost because Romney didn’t brag about how damned rich he was – you have to flaunt it to make everyone else feels like worthless scum, so they respect you. It was the usual bully stuff – that and his immigration plan that stressed the importance of getting more white immigrants to come to America. The crowd would have cheered, had there been one. He may be a proud bully, maybe the best example of one in the last thirty years, but he’s no longer hot.
The day closed with the dinner speaker, Jeb Bush, trying to counter all this:
Bush called on his fellow Republicans to share the party’s message to a broad base of constituencies and argued that the GOP must work to avoid being cast as the party of “no.”
“All too often we’re associated with being anti-everything. Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-worker and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party,” Bush said.
While Bush did not mention it directly, he alluded to one of the most commonly cited shortcomings of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign: the time the candidate told a group of donors that he would never win over “47 percent” of the voting population. Bush’s conclusion: “Never again.”
Jeb went all Dan Savage on them:
“Never again can the Republican party simply write off an entire segment of our society because we assume our principles have limited appeal. They have broad appeal,” he told the hundreds of conservatives gathered for the dinner. “For exactly the same reason that millions of immigrants were drawn to our shores from every nation, we need to draw into our party people from every corner of society because conservative principles – and not liberal dogma – best reflect the ideals that make this nation great.”
He added: “There is no us-or-them. The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American. And we need to be the party of inclusion and acceptance.”
No bully wants to hear that kind of talk, and events earlier in the day showed that:
A CPAC session sponsored by Tea Party Patriots and billed as a primer on teaching activists how to court black voters devolved into a shouting match as some attendees demanded justice for white voters and others shouted down a black woman who reacted in horror.
The session, entitled “Trump The Race Card: Are You Sick And Tired Of Being Called A Racist When You Know You’re Not One?” was led by K. Carl Smith, a black conservative who mostly urged attendees to deflect racism charges by calling themselves “Frederick Douglass Republicans.”
Disruptions began when he started accusing Democrats of still being the party of the Confederacy – a common talking point on the right.
That’s a bit of projection, but that wasn’t the main event:
Scott Terry of North Carolina, accompanied by a Confederate-flag-clad attendee, Matthew Heimbach, rose to say he took offense to the event’s take on slavery. (Heimbach founded the White Students Union at Towson University and is described as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
“It seems to be that you’re reaching out to voters at the expense of young white Southern males,” Terry said, adding he “came to love my people and culture” who were “being systematically disenfranchised.”
Smith responded that Douglass forgave his slave-master. “For giving him shelter? And food?” Terry said.
At this point the event devolved into a mess of shouting.
Yeah, half the crowd was shouting that slavery was a GOOD thing and the other half of the crowd seemed to think it might not be wise to say such things. Blacks should be happy that the slave-master gave them shelter, clothing, and food – and now in their arrogance they’re getting all the breaks and sneering at the good and foolishly generous white folks? You don’t want to go there. This sort of stuff makes Donald Trump seem subtle and nuanced.
It’s hard for bullies to regroup, but it can happen, as it did happen earlier in the day:
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a rising national star in the Republican Party, announced on Friday that he has a gay son and could no longer justify his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Mr. Portman’s revelation makes him the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support giving gay men and lesbians the right to marry, and one of the most prominent so far of a growing number of Republicans to publicly oppose their party on the issue.
In a series of interviews and an op-ed article published in The Columbus Dispatch, Mr. Portman, at times nervously wringing his hands, said that he did not want his son Will, who is 21, treated any differently because of his sexuality.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I’ve had for over 26 years,” he told CNN. “That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is gay.”
This is nothing but trouble for the Republican Party – its positions on issues like gay marriage and immigration are firm, even if they alienate many voters, enough voters to lose them national elections. This had to be handled carefully, as he had been one of them:
A spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, who is also from Ohio, said Friday that while Mr. Boehner “respects” Mr. Portman’s position, “the speaker continues to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
A spokesman for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, had no immediate comment but said that Mr. Portman did call the senator this week to inform him that he would be making the announcement.
Portman did try to make this conservative:
We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.
No one was buying it:
Religious conservatives reacted strongly to Mr. Portman on Friday, with some saying that he had turned his back on Christianity. “Senator Portman speaks like so many who call themselves Christians but actually don’t spend much time dwelling on the Word of God,” wrote Erick Erickson, the conservative commentator, on Twitter.
Others were harsher. The Traditional Values Coalition, a religious group that is often vocal on gay issues, issued a statement that equated homosexuality with drunken driving and mocked Mr. Portman, writing, “My child is a drunk driver and I love him.”
They wanted Portman to remain a proud bully, but he just couldn’t do it. It was personal, for what that’s worth, which Kevin Drum thinks isn’t worth much:
I admit that my first reaction to this was disgust: I’m tired of conservatives who suddenly decide that Medicaid should be more generous with stroke victims after they’ve had a stroke themselves, or who suddenly decide gay marriage is okay when someone in their family turns out to be gay. Is it too much to ask that they show a little empathy even for people and causes that don’t directly affect their own lives?
That’s a bully thing, but it is perhaps forgivable:
I do wish conservatives could demonstrate a little empathy even for people and causes that don’t directly affect their own lives, but it’s not as if this is an exclusively conservative thing. It’s a human thing. Personal experience always touches us more deeply than facts and figures, and in the case of gay marriage we all knew this was how progress would be made. People would see gay characters on TV and shed a little bit of their discomfort. They’d learn that old friends are gay and decide they wanted to stay friends anyway. They’d learn their children are gay, and decide that they still wanted the best for them, even if that means supporting same-sex marriage.
We all knew this was how it would happen, slowly but steadily. We knew it. And now it’s happened to Rob Portman. It’s progress. It’s human. And I should be less churlish about it.
Maybe, but Matthew Yglesias is fine with being churlish:
I’m glad that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has reconsidered his view on gay marriage upon realization that his son is gay, but I also find this particular window into moderation – memorably dubbed Miss America conservatism by Mark Schmitt – to be the most annoying form.
Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn’t lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poverty. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who’s locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.
In short, this is not forgivable:
It’s a great strength of the movement for gay political equality that lots of important and influential people happen to have gay children. That obviously does change people’s thinking. And good for them – but if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally?
Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights are the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.
You have to say it gets better, and mean it:
Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.
Jonathan Chait extends that argument:
Wanting your children to be happy is the most natural human impulse. But our responsibility as political beings – and the special responsibility of those who hold political power – is to consider issues from a societal perspective.
It is possible to argue that the societal cost of granting the right to gay marriage – or, say, access to health insurance -outweighs the benefit. The signal failure of conservative thought is an inability to give any weight to the perspective of the disadvantaged. It is one thing to argue that society can’t afford to provide all its citizens with access to health insurance. It’s quite another to dismiss the needs of the uninsured because the majority has insurance. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan dismissed universal health insurance as “a new entitlement we didn’t even ask for.” The construction was so telling – “we” meant the majority who have access to regular medical care and would rather not subsidize those who don’t.
It is also possible to change your mind on any of these questions. I support the estate tax. If I discovered my children were due to inherit a fortune from a long lost relative, it’s possible that the experience would prompt me to change my mind. I’d like to think it wouldn’t. And if I did change my mind, I’d have some obligation to explain how I had learned something new in the process of suddenly becoming the father of wealthy heirs – estate planning is way more onerous than I thought! – rather than simply construct a new rationale to suit my newly discovered self-interest. If I simply declared that my children’s newfound wealth had given me a previously absent sympathy for the economic rights of the very rich, you would rightly question the value of my thinking on anything.
Bullies don’t get exemptions:
Portman ought to be able to recognize that, even if he changed his mind on gay marriage owing to personal experience, the logic stands irrespective of it: Support for gay marriage would be right even if he didn’t have a gay son. There’s little sign that any such reasoning has crossed his mind. …
It’s pretty simple. Portman went along with his party’s opposition to gay marriage because it didn’t affect him. He thought about gay rights the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care. And he still obviously thinks about most issues the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care.
That Portman turns out to have a gay son is convenient for the gay-rights cause. But why should any of us come away from his conversion trusting that Portman is thinking on any issue about what’s good for all of us, rather than what’s good for himself and the people he knows?
There’s nothing really new here. One bully among many carved out one single issue he will no longer bully anyone about, for personal reasons – but everything else is fair game. It gets better? One party says no, not for you, or you, or you – you deserve all the scorn you get. The other party says no, it really does get better – just hang in there and ignore the unthinking fools – you have better things to do with your life. There’s a reason that the Republicans lose all the time now. Dan Savage did his work well. He actually did more than he intended. For some reason people do like hope. It does get better, just not for Republicans.