If Mitt Romney is looking for a running mate to completely undermine his argument that his campaign represents the outsider-businessman, fiscally responsible alternative, he would be hard-pressed to find a better choice than Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). And yet the freshman senator and Washington insider is reportedly high on Romney’s vice-presidential short list. (This past weekend he was one of the chosen few attendees at Romney’s mysterious confab with big donors and nominal outside organizers such as Karl Rove.)
Portman’s pedigree is that of a generic establishment Republican career politician. Born in Cincinnati, Portman graduated from a private high school, Dartmouth and the University of Michigan Law School. After law school he moved to Washington, DC, where he worked for the paradigmatic lobbying firm Patton Boggs. Portman registered as a foreign agent, because he represented repressive foreign autocracies such as the Sultanate of Oman and the Republic of Haiti (ruled at the time by infamous dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier). In 1989 Portman joined President George H.W. Bush’s administration as assistant White House counsel, later serving as White House director of legislative affairs.
In 1993 Portman entered a special Congressional election back in Ohio. Portman’s Congressional career was hardly that of a legislative powerhouse. His signature accomplishments include authoring laws to eliminate capital gains taxes on most home sales and drug prevention efforts.
While lobbying for dictators would usually be a prospective running mate’s biggest liability, it is not Portman’s. By far the biggest risk in choosing Portman would be his role in the failed policies of President George W. Bush’s administration. Portman served during Bush’s second term as US Trade Representative and then as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The Bush administration’s record during Portman’s tenure is an objective failure in both areas. As Portman’s 2010 Democratic Senate opponent noted in an attack ad: “On [Portman’s] watch as Bush’s trade czar, our deficit with China exploded, sending 100,000 Ohio jobs overseas. As Bush’s budget chief, Portman oversaw a spending spree that doubled the deficit.” America’s trade deficit with China increased by about $228 billion, or by 21 percent, during Portman’s thirteen months as trade rep. This could be especially problematic for Romney, now that it has been revealed that Bain Capital invested in companies that moved jobs to China and India.
This is the political risk that picking Portman poses for Romney: while Romney proposes to return to George W. Bush’s policies, he doesn’t want to admit that this would result in the same outcome. So he might be wise to avoid picking anyone from the Bush administration as his running mate.
The fact that Portman managed to beat Fisher should not be taken as a guarantee that Portman’s record from the Bush years is not a liability or that he would carry Ohio for Romney. Fisher came out of a very divisive primary, and he was heavily outspent by Portman.
Luckily for Portman, Romney is running a risk-averse campaign. Romney’s bet is that reminding low-information swing voters every day that the economy is not as strong as they would like will drive them into the arms of any acceptable-seeming alternative. Two generic Republicans—older white men from the worlds of business and politics—is all the Romney campaign wants. If they choose Portman, they will get that at least.