What the Ohio senator lacks in star-power he may make up in expertise and swing state sway.
Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice…Rob Portman. The last name on the list doesn’t have the political star power of the others, but the freshman senator from Ohio has recently emerged as a leading contender to be Mitt Romney’s running mate.
That Portman's is being seriously considered for the GOP ticket is no fluke. His status as a first-term senator belies an impressive political resume. For starters, he is a veteran of two presidential administrations, having served under President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He also spent 12 years in Congress, before being elected to the Senate in 2010. Just as significant is Portman's experience on budget and spending issues, on which he is considered a respected authority. A former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, he also served on the deficit-reduction "super committee" that last fall unsuccessfully tried to craft a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion.
Despite that failure, Portman has emerged as an effective critic of the Obama administration’s fiscal stewardship. In February he released an analysis showing just how fiscally irresponsible the administration is. Portman estimated that the administration’s budget increases would lead to the government reaching the debt ceiling once again by October, meaning that it would have slashed through last year's $2.1 trillion increase in just 14 months. “This is an unfortunate but clear signal to the American people that Washington is spending too much, borrowing too much, and putting our nation’s fiscal stability at risk,” Portman noted at the time.
Due to his command of budget issues, Portman has also been an effective critic of the Obama administration’s budgetary gimmicks. When the administration recently touted the so-called "Buffet Rule," a minimum tax on millionaires and billionaires, Portman was among the first to point out that it was little more than political posturing. After calculating that the high-profile tax would bring in less than $5 billion per year, Portman observed, “That represents 0.4 percent of annual individual income taxes paid — or enough to pay one week’s interest on the national debt." The Obama administration subsequently shifted course, insisting that the tax was not intended to bolster the country's finances but rather to promote "fairness."
Budget expertise aside, Portman’s other major selling point is geography: he represents a vital swing state in Ohio. How vital? One oft-cited measure is that no Republican has won the White House without carrying the Buckeye State. Portman's addition to the ticket won't guarantee a Republican victory in Ohio, of course, but the fact that he won his Senate seat in 2010 with nearly 60 percent of the vote may be a good portend. Nor has it escaped notice that he enjoys a strong relationship with the state’s conservative voters. Although many conservative voters preferred Rick Santorum, Portman's endorsement of Romney helped him to a narrow but critical victory in the March 6 Ohio primary. Portman's endorsement proved particularly influential in his former Congressional district of Cincinnati and the surrounding suburbs, where Romney drew much of his support. The hope among Republicans is that Portman can replicate those results in November.
Not everyone is sold on Portman though. One of the more persistent criticisms is that he is too “boring” to drum up much enthusiasm among the GOP base. Firing up Republicans against Obama is a task for which the measured and uncharismatic Portman is ill suited. In choosing Portman, moreover, Romney will be reinforcing the reputation for blandness that is considered one of his more notable drawbacks as a candidate.
Portman’s supporters counter that what he lacks in charisma he makes up for in political gravitas and national experience, the absence of which made Sarah Palin a liability in the last election. They also suggest that given the tidal force of anti-Obama sentiment in the Republican electorate, Romney may not need a more exciting figure to get GOP voters to the polls. Given the more interesting prospect of seeing a Republican favorite like Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan on the ticket, however, it remains to be seen whether Republicans will turn out for Romney if he goes for substance over star-power.
At the end of the day, Portman’s greatest appeal may be not who he is but what he represents. Though he has rarely been in the spotlight, his focus in Washington has been on reducing the debt and the deficit and finding ways to grow the economy. That hasn't turned Portman into a political celebrity. But considering the importance of those issues to voters, and the Obama administration’s woeful record on the economy, it may yet make him the vice presidential nominee.