I’m reminded of a 2010 interview of Charlie Baker, then seeking the Republican nomination for governor of Massachusetts, with a conservative talk show host. Baker was asked why he supported same-sex marriage, and he responded by talking about his gay brother and how it was a personal issue for him. The host moved on.
Now, I doubt Baker’s gay brother mattered at the margin in his support for same-sex marriage. All living Republican ex-governors of Massachusetts, except the ones named Mitt Romney, support same-sex marriage. Baker was a top staffer in the administration of former Governor Bill Weld, who was arguably the most pro-gay governor of either party in the early 1990s. Shortly after same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, Weld delivered the homily at the gay wedding of two officials who had served alongside Baker. Baker picked a gay state legislator as his running mate.
But by framing the issue around his brother, Baker made same-sex marriage personal not just for himself but also for the questioner. It’s almost a dare: “What are you going to do, attack my family?” And just as personalization is important for supporters of same-sex marriage, abstraction is important for opponents. It’s a lot easier to oppose same-sex marriage if you pretend the gay people hurt by the policy don’t actually exist. Portman’s gay son allows him to put same-sex marriage opponents on uncomfortably personal turf.