The Ultimate D.C. Insider, Rob Portman
The campaign of former Congressman and Bush Administration trade official Robert Portman has been an exceptionally uninteresting one.
And this is odd, considering there are quite a few details about Rob Portman for Republicans to be excited about. With a life-time ranking from the American Conservative Union of 87%, top-notch rankings from Citizens Against Government Waste, a champion of important free trade agreements, and taking a stance against ObamaCare’s unconstitutional health insurance mandates (even though he is one of the few Republican Senate candidates not to sign the Club for Growth’s pledge), he doesn’t seem anything like George Voinovich. In fact, if elected, he may very well be the most conservative Ohio Senator since “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft, a conservative legend.
And while his name-ID is low, Ohio voters aren’t opposed to voting for candidates they probably have never heard of. If you don’t believe me, ask Gov. Ted Strickland.
So what’s the problem?
It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I think it has to do with a general sense that Portman’s principles are malleable. It’s a series of little things which, when put together, paint a big picture of a career politician and political entrepreneur who embraces what I call an ideology of situational moral clarity.
This 2008 Plain Dealer interview gives you a sense of how, before all considerations, Portman is anything but a bold politician and is always looking out himself:
Back in his Washington office last month, Portman, who usually sits back calmly in his chair, suddenly leans forward when he’s told that one of his colleagues recently questioned how far he’ll go in politics because he seems “risk-averse.”
The description appears to rankle Portman, who has taken more than a few physical risks over the years – from ducking bullets whizzing over his head while kayaking on the Rio Grande, to defying Chinese officials who refused him permission to kayak on the Yangtze River.
“I probably am a little risk-averse compared to some members [of Congress],” he concedes, “but I think a lot of that is a deliberate decision on my part that some things are worth it for my career and some things aren’t.”
Portman, who maintained as recently as last month that he couldn’t imagine taking a job with the Bush administration because “it just doesn’t work for my family,” said last week that he changed his mind and agreed to become the nation’s chief trade negotiator for several reasons. The main one, he said, was that he came to realize that after 12 years in Congress – the longest he’s stayed in any job – he was “ready for a change.”
And while making the bizarre decision to proudly campaign on his Washington D.C.-insider credentials in a political environment where voters generally want to “throw the bums out,” Portman’s messaging leaves much to be desired. To see that he was President Bush’s choice to be John McCain’s running mate speaks to just how close he was to a President who tried to re-define conservatism as some sort of deficit-growing, expansive foreign policy, fuzzy-”compassionate” gobbledygook. And happily claiming he knows “where the bodies are buried” is downright creepy.
As a Congressman, Rob Portman was not opposed to pork. In fact, he secured more than $6,000,000 in grants and loan guarantees for “rural development” for the city of Portsmouth, which ended up being spent on murals and shoe laces.
Small potatoes, right? OK fine.
But Rob Portman was also a member of the House Budget Committee when Medicare Part D, which has an ever-skyrocketing multi-trillion dollar price tag to provide perspiration drugs to seniors. Portman’s fingerprints are all over the creation of this wildly un-conservative piece of legislation. So I suppose Portman only supports expansion of Federal Government involvement in your health care decisions when it’s politically damaging to Democrats?
Similar hypocrisy can be shown by how Rob Portman, who campaigns against stimulus spending, saw those dollars go to a Portman-owned family business, thus making the obvious case against stimulus spending: That such dollars will ALWAYS be subject to political considerations.
Also, as a Bush Administration official, Portman was once quite supportive of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was originally developed to buy so-called “toxic assets,” as a way to clean up the serious financial collapse caused by government intervention in the housing market.
But like any large pot of money left in the hands of politicians, TARP funds were never spent for their intended purpose… which is something I would think a proud D.C.-insider would understand. And now, because Portman is opposed to TARP and wants to the remaining dollars to be spent on deficit reduction and an “income tax payroll,” he has opened himself to this entirely legitimate attack from the Ohio Democrat Party:
So what is Rob Portman’s message? It is so good that it apparently can’t even be contained in a 30 second ad. As you can see below, the information must be downloaded in a blue book:
What is in that book? As I noted before, it has plenty of good points- Such as cutting America’s uncompetitive business tax rate and opposing C02-capping schemes.
But it includes gentle bashing of trade with China, which I think flies in the face of the op-eds Portman has written for the Wall Street Journal, explaining how trade and open exchange benefits everyone. Portman, so I assumed, does not subscribe to Lee Fisher’s uneducated, populist rhetoric of “exporting jobs” and treating market activity as a zero-sum game. It is clear that Portman is highly sensitive to criticism of his position on trade, and this blue book is a solid attempt to purposefully obfuscate the issue.
Then is the issue of the payroll tax holiday. Beyond the fact that with the multi-trillion dollar deficits and inherently inflationary policies of the Obama Administration making a holiday a political impossibility, payroll tax holidays are bad holidays. Just like Milton Friedman, I’ve never met a tax cut I didn’t like… But with a majority of Americans not paying any Federal tax, this would be a 1-time, only TARP and debt funded Keynesian endeavor for only short term, temporary gain. And just like the Bush Administration’s $300 rebate checks, the problem with one time handouts is that it induces people to save and pay down personal debt, without encouraging small businesses to grow and prosper because tax rates will return to their normal, high rates immediately. The goal of pro-growth, supply-side Republicans should be real tax reform, not gimmicky handouts.
And this isn’t the first annoying gimmicky idea Portman has embraced. He proudly supported the Cash for Clunkers program, which paid people to buy fuel efficient cars. Not only was this an obscene use of Federal dollars, but perfectly good cars were DESTROYED by having sodium silicate poured into the engines. And because free money is popular, so many used cars were destroyed by C-f-C that the average price for used cars was estimated to increase by almost 25%, thus making it difficult for the working and middle class to buy cars to drive to work. And, more generally, the creepy, statist nature of such a proposal I think would define a politician’s entire philosophy. So what are we to think of Rob Portman? And where does he draw the line with artificially boosting an industry in this fashion?
Portman, who has been on cruise control during this entire campaign, has also been very careful not to interact with TEA Partiers:
For years, Rep. Roy Blunt and former Rep. Rob Portman touted their positions of influence in Republican leadership circles in Washington, D.C.
But now both are running for Senate seats and discovering their Washington résumés to be something of a liability at a time when the Tea Party and disaffected fiscal conservatives have new political power.
Blunt, who is running in a GOP primary in Missouri, and Portman, who is running in Ohio, have taken different approaches to explaining their years in Washington.
While Blunt has reached out to Tea Party activists, Portman has kept them at arm’s length so far.
“I know that he is making an effort, I have been seeing a lot of threads come through where he’s really reaching out to conservatives,” said Dr. Gina Loudon, a radio show host and Tea Party organizer based in St. Louis, in reference to Blunt.
“I see him trying to make inroads there,” she added. “I see people looking favorably at the fact that he’s reaching out.”
Rich Chrismer, a spokesman for Blunt’s campaign, said the candidate has tried to distinguish himself from inside-the-Beltway politicians by keeping close tabs on the Tea Party.
“Roy Blunt is doing something they’re not doing in Washington,” said Chrismer. “He’s listening to them and paying attention to their concerns. We’re excited that many people who have not been involved in politics before are getting involved in the process.”
Portman has been more aloof, according to Tea Party organizers in Ohio.
“He has not reached out to our group,” said Rob Scott, founder and president of the Dayton Tea Party.
In response to this and other reports, Portman subsequently did attend a TEA Party rally in Mansfield. And his appearance inspired what is perhaps the lowest turnout of any TEA event in Ohio, with only ”dozens” in attendance.
And, Portman’s campaign is run by people who I may personally like, but also ran Jim Petro’s campaign for Governor. In that effort, these operatives were deployed to get every county bureaucrat opposed to Ken Blackwell’s Tax Expenditure Limitation Amendment and other serious, tax reduction plans- Much in the same way Democrats are currently organizing against John Kasich’s plan to gut Ohio’s income tax. And this battle made Blackwell spend millions of dollars in a hotly contested primary and ensuring that Ted Strickland became the Governor of Ohio. I can’t blame operatives for the views of their employers, but why work for someone who was so harmful to the Republican agenda in the first place?
So am I going to vote for Rob Portman? Yes, because I have no choice. Hairy Lee Fisher, a tax-raising anti-gun fanatic and a typical corrupt Cuyahoga County Democrat, is unacceptable. But just because I support Rob Portman and provided the content for the NRSC’s fantastic shirtless web-ad about Fisher, doesn’t mean I have to be excited about this race.
And if Republicans are ever able to win back the majority in the United State Senate, I think Rob Portman, just like George Voinovich, will be disappointing.