At the Top of Romney’s VP Short List: Rob Portman
Policy + Politics

At the Top of Romney’s VP Short List: Rob Portman

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As a potential vice presidential running mate for Republican Mitt Romney, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio brings a lot to the table.
The conservative lawmaker and former White House budget director comes from a key battleground state and speaks with authority on spending, tax, deficit and trade issues. In 14 years on Capitol Hill, he has co-authored over a dozen bills that became law, including legislation to reform the Internal Revenue Service.

And while the affable Portman  has repeatedly shown he can work closely with Democrats – as he did last year as a member of the bipartisan congressional Super Committee – he closely adheres to the GOP no-new-taxes line and readily blames President Obama for a leadership vacuum in Washington.

“There’s a sense out there [among voters] that Washington is careening down a path toward a fiscal catastrophe,” Portman said this week during a conference on the fiscal crisis sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.* Both parties are responsible for having dug an unprecedented “fiscal hole,” he said – one that defies ready solutions because of a weak economy, a national debt that has all but eclipsed the economy, and the deep and intractable partisan divide.

RELATED: Romney’s Running Mate: 12 Possible VP Picks

What is needed, he said, is a tough resolve to restrain future growth in government spending and entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and tax reform and other measures that will boost economic growth – but without raising rates.  Portman voted in favor of the  House-passed Republican budget drafted by Paul Ryan, which would  cut spending by $5 trillion more than than President Obama’s plan over the coming decade and would overhaul Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs.

“Maybe I’m naïve about this, but it’s not so much about your ideology as it is about your willingness to find a result,” Portman said about solving the political and fiscal mess in Washington. “I think we [legislators] are hired to seek solutions and help move the country forward and help our constituents. Whether you are more on the left side [of the political spectrum] or more on the right side, if you go at it with that objective, I think it’s an inescapable conclusion that we’ve got to resolve these problems.”

Political experts and commentators  are divided over whether Portman would make a strong running mate for Romney, with some believing  his low-key personality and strong economic and trade credentials  are too similar to those of Romney. 

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said recently that he was puzzled Romney would turn to Portman to balance out the ticket when the two politicians suffer from the same "personality deficits."

“If your problem is that you’re stiff, you’re not exciting, you’ve got green eyeshades and you’re great otherwise,” [as is Romney’s problem] Krauthammer indicated, “Why would you double down on that with Portman?” 

And with New Jersey Gov.Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida , House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and other more colorful or provocative figures appearing on many people’s short list of contenders, Portman comes off as  something of a long shot. Even Comedian Stephen Colbert quipped that a Romney-Portman ticket would be like the “bland leading the bland.”

Yet others see Portman as the ideal running mate for Romney – a consummate Washington insider and government expert with an easy way about him who would complement a former governor running for president as a clear Washington outsider. “Senator Portman has a great understanding of how to solve our economy and has a bipartisan record to back it up,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican political strategist. “He is likely high on the list because of his accomplishments as a serious legislator while representing a key battleground state.”

*Pete Peterson, chairman of the foundation, also finances The Fiscal Times.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato has listed Portman as the number-one vice presidential pick for Romney for months on his “Crystal Ball” website. “As we’ve said, Portman is vanilla, but vanilla is the best-selling flavor of ice cream for a reason,” Sabato told The Fiscal Times yesterday.  “It goes with anything. Portman won’t upstage Romney, and he helps Romney make the election a referendum [about] Obama by not serving as a distraction.”

More importantly, Portman would easily survive what is likely to be a tough vetting process by the Romney camp, to avoid the mistake Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona made four years ago in picking former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate without closely checking her out. There is little doubt that Portman has the experience, character and poise needed to step into the role of president on day one if needed.

“If you don’t think Portman is qualified to be VP, then you probably don’t think anyone is qualified,” Sabato said. “It’s an impressive resume that even includes foreign policy, via trade. Portman is well liked by members on both sides of the legislative aisle, even though he is deeply conservative and passes the key GOP litmus tests. Oh, and he’s from Ohio with a real organization. Those 18 electoral votes are key. No Republican has been elected president without Ohio, and it isn’t going to happen this year either.”

Portman shies away from speculative questions about whether he would accept the second spot on the Republican ticket and told The Fiscal Times,   “I’m happy where I am. Congress is where a lot of these [budget and economic] issues have to get resolved,” he said. “I look forward to helping [Romney] get elected and then…to work very closely with him to address these issues – the economy and our fiscal problems.”

Portman defended Romney this week after the Obama campaign aired an ad that likened Romney and his former private equity company, Bain Capital, to a “vampire” and job destroyer. The ad blamed Romney for allowing a Kansas City, Mo., steel company that had been acquired by Bain to go bankrupt in 2001, resulting in the loss of many jobs.  Portman called the ad an affront to capitalism and an unreasonable attack on the presumptive GOP nominee, who had left Bain two years before the steel mill closed. “He made some investments that did really well, and some that didn't do well.” And for the steel industry in particular, these were very difficult times. This was not an isolated case.”

Portman, 56, a native of Cincinnati and a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan Law School, launched his public service and political career in 1989, as an associate White House counsel for President George H.W. Bush. He later served as director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs before returning to Cincinnati in 1991 to practice law.

In 1993, Portman won a special election to fill a vacant House seat, and quickly earned a reputation on Capitol Hill as an honest broker who worked effectively across the political aisle in drafting or co-authoring legislation. Among his biggest achievements were  the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, legislation to curb unfunded federal mandates, a novel bill that allowed Costa Rica to swap its debt for the preservation of tropical forests, and the elimination of capital gains on the sale of most homes.

He developed his tax writing chops as a member of the Ways and Means Committee and as vice chair of the Budget Committee. The Ohio Republican also served as a liaison between congressional Republicans and the White House. Portman left the Hill to serve in two federal cabinet posts under President George W. Bush. From May 2005 to May 2006, he was the U.S. Trade Representative followed by a one-year stint as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB.)  He presided over the budget office in the post-911 era of freewheeling spending on defense, homeland security and tax breaks that led to soaring budget deficits. He said this week that in hindsight, Bush waited far too long – until 2006 – to begin vetoing excessive spending bills and exercising some fiscal restraint.

“At that point [in 2006], frankly, spending started to be restrained and we had growth in the economy prior to the financial crisis,” said Portman.  The deficit dropped from $248.18 billion in 2006 to $160.7 billion in 2007, while Portman supervised the White House budget office.  It shot up to $458.5 billion the following year and then skyrocketed to a staggering $1.4 trillion in 2009. In 2008, Portman founded the Ohio's Future PAC, a political action committee dedicated to ensuring "that the critical policy issues important to Ohioans remain at the forefront of Ohio's political agenda.”

Then, on January 14, 2009, two days after Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich announced he would not seek re-election, Portman threw his hat in the ring for the open seat. Portman ran against Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, and won the election by a margin of 57 percent to 39 percent – carrying 82 of Ohio's 88 counties.