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McCain VEEPwatch: Who Is Rob Portman?

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Since Senator McCain is in Ohio this week, the scuttlebutt is focused on former Ohio Representative Rob Portman – a respected Conservative whose economic experience and service for both Bushes has earned him many Capitol Hill cheerleaders.

Is he the yin to McCain’s yang?

Congressional Credentials:
Director of the Office of Management and Budget (2006 – 2007)
US Trade Representative (2005- 2006)
Ohio House of Representatives (1993 – 2005)
-Ways and Means Committee
-Subcommittee on trade
-Vice chair of the Budget Committee
Director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs (1990-1991)
Associate White House Counsel to George HW Bush (1989)

Background: Rob Portman hails from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is a law man. He graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in Anthropology and earned his JD from the University of Michigan in 1984. Portman has since worked for Patton Boggs and Graydon, Head & Ritchey. He’s married with three children, ages 11, 14 and 15. (His wife’s a reformed Democrat who once worked for Tom Daschle!)
On a personal note, he enjoys white water kayaking in his spare time and penned a book about the Shaker colony.

His Agenda: No doubt, Portman is a fiscally conservative economics guy. For McCain, this is a huge asset, since he’s confessed on many occasions that he’s “no economist.” In addition to his star-studded resume, Portman also began a Political Action Committee called “Ohio’s Future” to look at economics and energy issues as it affects residents and small business owners.

In dozens of speeches this year, he’s praised President Bush’s limited domestic spending and criticized Democrats for making it easier to attach earmarks.  “We should be focusing on growth strategies in order to get the economy back into balance,” he said. “Voters punished Republicans because we were spending too much of their hard-earned tax dollars,” he said, arguing for fiscal responsibility. He emphasized “a return to the basics, to the core values of lower spending and less government” and said that taxpayers were frustrated with bipartisan gridlock.
Foreign Policy Cred:  His post as US Trade Representative gives him a little bit of foreign policy street cred, but this qualification isn’t as critical for a McCain VEEP as it is for an Obama VEEP.

Domestic Policy Cred: This is where Portman shines. Esteemed journalist Robert Novak perhaps said it best: “Portman’s background is legislative (House Republican leadership), executive (George W. Bush’s Cabinet), diplomatic (U.S. trade representative) and economic (Office of Management and Budget director). He comes from a swing state (Ohio), is young enough (52) to contrast McCain and conservative enough (89 percent lifetime American Conservative Union rating).” Best of all, he’s conservative but in a Reaganesque sort of way. He’s not out there shouting about banning gay marriage or outlawing abortion, but he never hesitates to remind Republicans what their core principles are: small government, promoting business, tax cuts and fiscal responsibility.Furthermore, he plays well with Democrats in the sandbox. He worked with democrats like Ben Cardin and Stephanie Tubbs Jones to pass legislation.

Star Achievements: When Rob Portman spoke, people listened – no matter which side of the table they came from. When someone wanted something done, they came to Rob. As a legislator, Portman authored or co-authored many bills that became law, including: the IRS Restructuring Act of 1998, Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995, the Tropical Forest Conservation Act of 1998 and the Second Chance Act of 2008. He fought to expand small business pensions, increase 401k / IRA contributions, eliminate capital gains taxes on home sales, promote drug prevention and curtail unfunded mandates.

Possible Snafus:  Surprisingly, Portman’s one of those rare guys who buzzes around Washington but remains relatively unscathed and free of major scandals.

Although, there is the problem that Portman just simply not want the job! Word on the street is that he wants to spend time with his neglected family. He told The Hill, “I don’t aspire to be the VP nominee. I just got home.” He laughs about it sometimes and recalls how he commuted back and forth from Ohio to Washington for fifteen years and is enjoying his first year back home. “I’m not hunting for another Washington job right now,” he assures us.

But on Wednesday, Hannity and Colmes drilled him for the good portion of the interview, pressuring him to answer Veepstakes speculation. Portman first told them, “I’ll be talking to [McCain] about the same things I talked to him last time I was here, which is things like energy policy and economic policy, so I don’t expect to be asked.” After a few moments he concedes, “You know, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.” In a slight gaffe, Portman slipped, “It’s not something I’m looking forward – I’m looking to.” 

…Not looking forward to being the Veep, are we, Portman? Well, then why did you have so many ideas about what sort of vice president McCain should have? Portman reportedly told The Hill that during his tenure in Washington, he had learned what makes for an effective vice president: “It’s the ability to trust and understand each other. And the second [factor] is the ability to govern an incredibly complex bureaucracy at a critical time in history.” He downplayed the role of geography saying, “I know I’m from Ohio but I think that’s overplayed, honestly. I think when you look at the history of vice presidential picks, after the fact you see it makes very little difference in terms of the decisions people make.” Sounds like he’s given it plenty of thought, doesn’t it? (But shh, don’t tell anyone or you’ll spoil his chances!)

It is possible that Portman’s set his sights elsewhere. He’s mentioned that he would “absolutely consider” taking over Ted Strickland’s position as Ohio Governor, Senator George Voinovich’s position or Senator Sherrod Brown’s spot. “The great thing about politics is that I don’t get to make these decisions: it’s the voters [who do]. I can say I’m interested, but we have a big month in November to make sure Ohioans choose the right person.” (Another VP hint perhaps?)

I’ve heard the argument that Portman isn’t that well-known outside his circle. Salon quoted one unnamed Republican strategist as saying, “I think that buzz is largely coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s like a college radio station – the further you get from campus, the more it dies down.” Similarly, Ohio political observer Gerald Austin remarked, “The average Republican precinct captain doesn’t know who he is.” Even his hometown blog – The Plain Dealer Politics Blog – says he is “barely known outside southwest Ohio.”

Will his position as a former trade representative who pushed CAFTA hurt him? Bill Sloat from The Daily Bellwether Blog feels “Portman may have baggage from his days as trade representative,” although he doesn’t specifically mention what that “baggage” might be. He goes on to say that Ohioans dislike NAFTA and similar bargains, expressing skepticism about globalization.

If McCain’s looking to distance himself from the tainted Bush-Cheney legacy, Portman might send mixed signals. Portman is as much a “Loyal Bushie” as one can get. He worked in prestigious appointed positions for both Bush administrations, he supported the war wholeheartedly, he supported war funding bills and his hometown paper even called him “a ‘talking head’ for the Bush led agenda.” Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Alex Goepfert said, “Rob Portman isn’t just linked the the failed Bush agenda. He is the failed Bush agenda.” Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown says, “He’s an honorable man, but he’s part of the Bush team. You can look at the Bush trade deficits and the Bush budget deficits and you’re going to get more of the same.” Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch, says Portman is “incredibly skilled” but adds, “He’s the perfect choice if McCain wants to continue running on Bush’s failed trade policy because that’s part of Portman’s actual handiwork.”

VicePresidents.com Assessment…
I’ve never met Rob Portman. I can only gather a general impression of him from reading dozens of articles, comments, anecdotes and interviews. I like to hear what friends and coworkers have to say about the prospective Veep candidates – after all, they know him best! Let’s take a look, shall we?

“Rob understands government to a degree and at a level that most people don’t achieve without serving as vice president or president. Having worked on the Hill, having been the president’s liason there, having worked at USTR and OMB – you really understand the nuts and bolts of how things happen in government with that kind of a resume.”
– Robert Paduchik, Bush’s 2004 Ohio campaign manager

“Rob is a true friend and the White House is fortunate to have such a strong leader and effective communicator.”
-Dennis Hastert

“He is a person of credibility and decency that commanded respect from both sides of the aisle.”
-Kent Conrad (D-ND)

“He helped me put forward a plan to balance the budget by 2012 by restraining federal spending and keeping our taxes low. He’s put Democratic leaders in Congress on notice that I will veto bills with excessive levels of spending.”
-George W Bush

“When he was a member of the House, he was the real power in Ohio in terms of the Bush administration – he was the guy you went to see if you wanted something done.”
-Gerald Austin, Ohio political observer

“I would be very comfortable with him. He’s a solid conservative.”
-Gary Bauer, social conservative, president of American Values npo

“[He and McCain] have different styles but similar views on how you can get things done in Washington.”
-Rob Lehman, former aide

“He’s considered a party up-and-comer with an economic portfolio, bipartisan respect on Capitol Hill, youth and a great family.”
-Brad Blakeman, GOP activist

“I live in Cincinnati’s second district and know no person better equipped to bring the two parties together to work more cooperatively and positively, and with as much grace and diplomacy than Rob Portman. He is the REAL change this country needs!”
-Melanie Schefft of Ohio

“I live in Ohio’s second district and I believe that Portman would certainly play a huge part in helping McCain to be elected if Rob is his choice for VP.”
-Nannie Turner of Ohio

“He’s a very attractive, articulate, conservative person with a beautiful family and he’s from a critical state. So I would hope that any list they’re developing, he’s on it.”
-Trent Lott.

“If you look at the qualities that would make the most sense for McCain to consider, Portman certainly possesses most of them.”
-Dan Schnur, communications director for McCain’s 2000 presidential race

“Rob Portman is the next generation of leaders in our Republican Party in America, and he has earned a significant place in the future of the Republican Party.”
-John McCain

Well, the verdict’s in: Rob Portman is the kind of guy you’d want batting for you! An SNL’s Stewart Smalley would say, “He’s good enough, he’s smart enough, and doggone it, people like him.”

Like Mitt Romney, another Veepstakes contender, Portman is a solid fundraiser. Last Thursday Rob Portman single-handedly raised over $100,000 for John McCain! He’s also been giving keynote speeches left right and center, with over three dozen appearances this year. Strategically, he’d be a huge asset for McCain. The questions that remain are: Will he play well with a strong-minded Maverick like McCain? Does he want it? And can he offer us a truly NEW economic / trade policy?

You’ll be able to catch Rob Portman as a special guest on “Fox News Sunday” this week.