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The Case Against Rob Portman

Yesterday we made the case for why John McCain should pick former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman as his vice presidential running mate. Now the case against Portman.

A Bush Guy

Portman has spent his entire career in the orbit of the Bush family -- not exactly a sterling credential in this political environment.

Portman's ties to the Bush family go all the way back to then Vice President George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign on which Portman worked before joining the White House general counsel's staff after Bush's victory.

His connections carried over to George W. Bush as Portman became chief liaison between the Bush campaign -- and eventually the Bush White House -- and Capitol Hill. Of Bush, he told the New York Times in 2003: ''He has a clear sense of what makes this country great. It makes it worthwhile being here to be with someone who has that passion.'' (You can be sure that Democrats will dredge that quote up over and over again in the fall if Portman winds up on the ticket.)

And then, of course, came Portman's stints as U.S Trade Representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget. In both posts, Portman was the face of the Bush Administration on two issues -- trade and the economy -- on which the American public has diverged sharply from the current president over the last several years.

In places like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, free trade agreements are largely viewed in a negative light, blamed for the destruction of the manufacturing sector. (Need evidence of how unpopular these trade agreements are? Witness Barack Obama's denunciation of NAFTA in the run up to the Ohio primary.)

And, with the economy now the dominant campaign issue and voters very unhappy about its direction, does McCain want to remind voters of Bush's approach to the nation's finances?

Barack Obama's campaign has already made clear that its main message against McCain in the general election is that McCain's election would be tantamount to a third Bush term. Putting Portman on the ticket hands Democrats a potent talking point in their attempts to link the duo.

Mr. Excitement?

The disparity in energy levels between the Democratic and Republican bases is apparent in a number of ways -- the numbers of dollars raised by each side and the number of votes cast in the respective primary fights being the two most obvious measures.

Much of that disparity has to do with the utter disdain (we'd say it another way but The Fix is, after all, a family-oriented blog) with which the Democratic left views President Bush. Combine that with the genuine excitement the liberal left feels toward Obama and the lack of passion the Republican base has shown for McCain and you quickly begin to see why the GOP is in such a tough position heading into the fall.

McCain has very few options to re-energize the party base left to him between now and November. The clearest opportunity for him to create a spark is his choice of a running mate -- a moment when the full glare of the media spotlight will shine on McCain.

If, in that coveted moment, McCain picks -- wait for it....drumroll please -- "Rob Portman" there is the real possibility that he will have blown his one chance at re-orienting the race.

Portman is many things -- as we outlined in the case for him yesterday -- but he is neither well known nationally nor the sort of person who is going to get the base (or anyone else other than DC-based folks) particularly excited about the Republican ticket.

Portman is a guy who has spent his entire professional life either as a lawyer, staffer or politician. He's not the sort of choice -- like Joe Lieberman in 2000, for example -- that would dominate national news for days on end -- the sort of choice many Republican strategists believe McCain needs at the moment.

Portman's biggest strength is that he has demonstrated an amazing aptitude to navigate the tricky corners of political Washington. That makes him a smart choice if McCain has the luxury of picking someone he believes can help him to govern effectively, as opposed to someone who can help get him get elected in November. Given the toxic political environment, McCain may not get to make that choice.

Nice as a Minus

It's hard to find someone in Washington willing to say a bad word about Portman. Sure, there's some professional jealousy about Portman's rapid rise in Congress and the Administration -- a show horse, not a work horse, his critics allege -- but those hits on him are few and far between.


Because, during his time in Congress, and even while he worked within the Bush Administration, Portman showed a willingness to work regularly with Democrats on a variety of issues. (Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin is an unabashed Portman admirer, for example.)

While a penchant for bipartisanship is commendable, it is not a common characteristic on the curriculum vitae of a vice presidential pick whose job largely is to serve as the official attack dog of the ticket.

There is real doubt in Republican circles whether Portman would be willing to transform from nice guy to hit man for the purposes of electing McCain. It's also worth noting that Portman has expressed interest in running for governor in 2010 and might not want to sacrifice his golden boy reputation in the Buckeye State if it appears as though McCain is likely to come up short this fall.

Agree? Disagree? What did we miss in making the case against Portman? Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 30, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Veepstakes  
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Posted by: paxil side effect | August 17, 2008 11:04 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: hdvrpsal zamign | August 14, 2008 7:25 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: luftioeqg gvhjbno | August 14, 2008 7:25 AM | Report abuse

dl said It all depends on whom Obama picks.

Wouldn't both campaigns just love to know who the other VEEP will be before they make their announcement. It may come down to a game of VEEP chicken between the two campaigns.

Posted by: Mullens | July 30, 2008 10:22 PM | Report abuse

Casey, It may be that Portman's very real strengths are a lot like Barack Obama's. That in fact may be part of the problem. You acknowledge one and are forced to acknowledge the other and you come back to the difficulty McCain has had all along appearing reactive to his opponent. ('SEE! Barack Obama's not the ONLY one who can be exciting!') I expect that if Portman is "exciting" he is exciting to the very Washington insiders that hang like an anchor around John McCain's neck--McCain needs to run as far from Bush as he can and Portman is just another reminder of things that didn't work in the Bush Administration.

Posted by: DCH | July 30, 2008 3:30 PM | Report abuse

I live in that coveted state Ohio, and specifically in Portman's old congressional district. Many of the comments seem to indicate that Portman is not 'exciting" enough. Since when isn't intelligence, rational thinking and good negotiation skills not exciting? Aren't those some of the very things that Obama is being praised for? It seems a bit hypocritical to say you don't like grand-standing politicians that talk in sound bites, but then turn around and criticize someone for NOT being those things. I believe that Portman on the ticket would be a combination and strategy that McCain should choose. Portman is easy to listen to, he is great at helping people understand issues and passionate about his beliefs, and is someone who truely listens and then acts. Wow, how is that for a great candidate! It seems in the crush of media sound bites we live in ,that we have forgotten what a good politician should and can be.

Posted by: Casey | July 30, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

So, McCain made a phone call to Baghdad in order to set up a another shot at Obama. Good job.

I think the bigger story here is McCain's willingness to politicize U.S. troops in order to score cheap political points. I guess the GOP doesn't care how distasteful it is to use our fighting men and women as a political football. They use everything else: the DOJ and the GSA, for example.


Iraqis like troops more than Barack:

Washington - A top Iraqi official visited wounded American troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to thank them for their part in ending Saddam Hussein's rule in his country. "We have come ... to express our gratitude and appreciation for the sacrifices made by these great warriors, soldiers, in freeing the Iraqi people and in helping us in Iraq recover from tyranny and dictatorship,"

Posted by: JamesCH | July 30, 2008 12:02 PM | Report abuse

It's a no lose scenario for Portman if he's offered the job and takes it. If McCain loses, McCain will be blamed, not Portman, and Portman's profile is raised not just for his 2010 Gov. run (against potential worthy primary opponent John Kasich), but as a real contender for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012. And of course if Obama blows it - starting say by choosing Tim Kaine as his running mate - and loses the election, then Portman not only becomes VP, but the heir apparent to the Republican nomination in 4 years, since McCain has sworn to only serve a single term.

Posted by: Justin | July 30, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Barack Obama styles himself the candidate of "change" and "hope". So when his website "changed" to erase his well-known opposition to the Iraq War surge, maybe the Senator "hoped" no one would notice. In this day and age, that's a foolish, not to mention cynical, conceit, especially coming from the young, self-proclaimed "progressive" Democrat. And it backfired.

Posted by: kathleen | July 30, 2008 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Iraqis like troops more than Barack:

Washington - A top Iraqi official visited wounded American troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to thank them for their part in ending Saddam Hussein's rule in his country. "We have come ... to express our gratitude and appreciation for the sacrifices made by these great warriors, soldiers, in freeing the Iraqi people and in helping us in Iraq recover from tyranny and dictatorship,"

Posted by: Anonymous | July 30, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Bennigan's, which helped invent the suburban tavern-themed dining craze more than 30 years ago, abruptly closed dozens of stores Tuesday and filed for bankruptcy, a casualty of a brutal economy that has racked the restaurant industry.(Snip) Meanwhile, labor costs are rising at a fast clip, courtesy of minimum-wage increases.

Posted by: the Lib recession begins | July 30, 2008 11:38 AM | Report abuse

The problem with Portman is similar to the problems with any VP selection: McCain.

John McCain is his biggest problem. If only he could name a VP and a substitute for himself, the Republicans might have a chance this November.

Leaving McCain on the ticket will doom them to defeat.

Posted by: Portuguese Pete | July 30, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

it all depends on who Obama picks...

Posted by: dl | July 30, 2008 11:30 AM | Report abuse

McCain should choose who he wants based on his comfort factor, but that would mean selecting SC Senator Lindsey Graham or Tom Ridge.

But we all know neither Graham or Ridge are high on the campaign's list. McCain's top two choices are Romney and Pawlenty. Portman is not in the running.

The majority of the American electorate wants "change". McCain can't afford to put any former strong Bush supporters on his ticket. Romney tried to "copy" Obama's "change" message (unsuccessfully) near the end of his presidential run. Pawlenty is outside of Washington although much less unknown.

In the end, it doesn't matter who McCain chooses. He is not going to win.

Posted by: Obama-Junkie | July 30, 2008 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Hundreds of gov and military employees' (names are leaked today)who purchased fake university diplomas . . .A list of "experts"for the Bush Mini-Me McSame's campaign for his continuum of "experts" in our current administration.

the LIST:

Posted by: BegoniaBuzzkill | July 30, 2008 11:27 AM | Report abuse

McCain needs some punch at the bottom of the ticket.

The problem he's having, and will continue to have until election day, is that he's about as exciting as a Tupperware party. He needs someone in the #2 slot who can get people motivated and capture their interest.

Obama has the opposite problem.

He needs someone who is interesting, but not exciting. If the choice is not someone with major foreign policy bona fides (Clark, Biden, Bob Graham, or even Hillary), it has to be someone from outside the Beltway (Kaine, Mark Warner, etc.)

If he stays away from a foreign policy VP, Obama has to have a surrogate that becomes his second voice on those issues. Someone who is clearly going to be appointed as Sec. of State or Defense in an Obama Administration.

But the key for Obama is: compelling, not exciting. That's why Hillary is not a likely choice. It's too much electricity at the bottom of the ticket, especially with Bill coming as a package deal. Obama can't choose a VP who casts a bigger shadow.

Posted by: JamesCH | July 30, 2008 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Portman = Booooooooooooo-ring.

Posted by: bondjedi | July 30, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I find it hard to believe anyone would want to be the VP of a losing campaign. I am serious, who would want to be part of this who cares about their future? Especially the way the campaign has gone lately.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 30, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

"You might be the first person I've ever heard make the claim that Romney is 'exciting'. Perhaps I'm missing your point? "

Well, I think he would fire up the base. He would be a good attack dog. Did you catch his concession speech during the primaries? He said he was dropping out in order to help prevent the Democrats from letting the terrorists win. The guy is well known now and did pretty well in the primaries. If the Republicans didn't have winner-take-all rules for their primaries, he would have been a strong contender.

The flip-flops are an issue, but I do think the evangelicals seem to like him and he does bring an energy that McCain lacks.

Posted by: DDAWD | July 30, 2008 10:40 AM | Report abuse

hopefully McCain will find someone that is extremely nice.....unlike him for his VP. He is making himself look like a jealous, nasty fool that said he was going to run a clean campaign............ He is sooooooo unpresidential.

Posted by: jane | July 30, 2008 10:32 AM | Report abuse

ddawd writes
"Portman is not exciting. McCain needs exciting. That has got to be the top priority. To me, that says Jindal or Romney. Both exciting for two different reasons"

You might be the first person I've ever heard make the claim that Romney is 'exciting'. Perhaps I'm missing your point?

Posted by: bsimon | July 30, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: Anonymous | July 30, 2008 10:23 AM | Report abuse

MarkInAustin writes
"Any campaign is a marketing exercise to the PR flaks who run it. McC, who told Stephanopoulis that all remedies for SS would be on the table, needs Portman. His campaign, that denied McC spoke for the campaign, will want someone pliable and compliant, with less substance than Portman."

That begs the question: who's running the campaign? Is McCain in charge, or are the 'PR flaks' calling the shots now?

Posted by: bsimon | July 30, 2008 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Judging by the dearth of virulent comments here, I suspect that even most political junkies are uninspired by a Portman selection by McC. As dch and DDAWD mention, McC will need to generate some excitement and buzz -- either by the press or by the R base (or both) -- with his VP pick to hedge against the overwhelming advantage that BHO has in media coverage. Portman is more of a good fit on paper (intellectually) than in the reality of a political campaign (emotionally).

Posted by: mnteng | July 30, 2008 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Yesterday,on MSNBC,you said you needed the hits. So,here i am hitting it up,if you will,even tho i dont find this piece & the entire mccain campaign,worthy of a hit(probably explains the 12 comments) :) :)

Posted by: Ugaas | July 30, 2008 10:14 AM | Report abuse

This doesn't really have much to do with Portman, but the NYT put out an article about Obama's days as a law professor and how he developed many of the political theory that he is now putting into practice.

Enjoy. Its an interesting read.

Posted by: DDAWD | July 30, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse


A more intriguing possibility:

That Portman could be the GOP default candidate, if health concerns force McCain to withdraw from the race.

McCain apparently has gotten a clean bill of health concerning his most recent mole extraction. But let's speculate that over the past couple of years, McCain may have had some other growths removed; and let's speculate that one of two of them may have been deemed "pre-cancerous," thus allowing his doctors to say truthfully that they did not find cancer.

There are powerful forces who do not trust McCain, who tried to destroy him in the 2000 campaign, and who are uneasy with the notion of turning the reins of power over to a temperamental and unpredictable Senator who has bucked the system before and has the temerity to do it again.

Could it be possible that the anti-McCain forces could use past medical records to gin up a case against his continued candidacy? Surely these powers have ways of examining his records, if they have not already done so.

So perhaps McCain will come under some pressure to place Portman on the ticket, the political risks notwithstanding, so that this obviously talented and attractive Bush operative is in position to assume the mantle of GOP standard-bearer when McCain is persuaded to withdraw.

And as for the political downside of going with a dedicated "Bushie," perhaps those who would push a Portman candidacy are confident in the knowledge that such considerations really won't count in the end.


Posted by: scrivener | July 30, 2008 9:50 AM | Report abuse

i love these case for/case against posts!

i think chris got the major strike against portman, that he's bush's guy on trade and won't play well in the rust belt where mccain has to compete. but portman's connection with the "amazon chernobyl" makes him an even more unattractive choice for three reasons:

1) it gets people thinking about the possible consequences of off shore drilling at a time when mccain and the republicans think it's a winning issue

2) because portman, as the us trade rep, had to be asked to disregard chevron's lobbyists, it gets people thinking about big oil and the corruption lobbying brings at a time when mccain's own connection to lobbyists, as head of the international republican institute, is being interrogated

3) because barack obama is one of the main senators involved in advocating for chevron to face the charges in ecuador, and because obama stood up on this issue before running for president, it gives obama points for not seeming political while it looks like portman (bush's guy, like chris says) and mccain are in big oil's pocket while gas is at $4 a gallon.

Posted by: against the DLC | July 30, 2008 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Chris, you left out perhaps the biggest strike against Portman -- He's a shill for the company USEC that operates in his old congressional district, which by the way he bequeathed to Jean Schmidt. Schmidt is about to lose big time to Victoria Wulsin in Portman's old OH-02, which has now turned majority Democrat.

USEC is a disaster waiting for acknowledgment that it already happened. USEC is now seeking $2 billion in federal loan guarantees to build a uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, OH -- a plant that Portman promised would be built rapidly with private money in his 2004 campaign.

But USEC's project has flopped in the private sector, and now the company wants US taxpayers to pick up the tab. (Just Google USEC -- ticker symbol USU -- to read about the disaster.)

Portman earned his trade credentials by fighting for USEC's right to protect monopolistic practices against cheaper Russian uranium through trade barriers. That's why Portman was bumped up to US Trade Representative. USEC lost its tariff case in federal court last fall, and now that case will be heard on appeal in the Supreme Court -- after the election.

Fundamentally, Portman is a USEC creation and a USEC shill. If he winds up on the ticket, we'll have a field day exposing the dirty connections.

Actually I can't wait for Jean Schmidt to become the spokesmodel for the McCain-Portman ticket.

Posted by: Ohio Avenger | July 30, 2008 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Please change your picture for your column. You look like Penn Jillette.

Posted by: Kellie | July 30, 2008 9:15 AM | Report abuse

John McCain would be well served take a good look
at John Kasich from Ohio instead of Rob Portman.
John Kasich is a fighter,for the little guy/gal,from
Ohio and born in PA,has distance from the current
administration,is a Economic Powerhouse(former
House Budget Chair).Out of all the possible VP Picks
he may well be the best.At least others in print
have concluded that.No Republican has ever won the
White House without Ohio,that is a fact.This year
Pennsylvania and Michigan seem very important also.
John Kasich is the go to guy.That is my Opinion.

Posted by: Florida Voter | July 30, 2008 9:11 AM | Report abuse

McCain should pick Christie Todd Whitman as his VP. She is a moderate (pro-choice) Republican. She has some national name recognition since she was Bush's Administrator of EPA for his first term and before that she was the Governor of NJ.

That would draw away those Hillary voters who are mad at the Democratic Party -- and who will be even madder if Obama selects a generic white male VP like Bayh or Kaine.

The downside for McCain would be that his rightwing base wouldn't like the choice, but they would hate an Obama Administration much more than they would hate a McCain administration so I don't see them completely abandoning McCain no matter what he does -- they didn't like him in the first place.

Posted by: Rhonda | July 30, 2008 8:19 AM | Report abuse

Portman is exactly the sort of fellow McCain needs to avoid. His connection to the GOP establishment and the Bush administration is deep and very public. It would fit right into the Dems plans.

Posted by: matt | July 30, 2008 8:16 AM | Report abuse

Portman is not exciting. McCain needs exciting. That has got to be the top priority. To me, that says Jindal or Romney. Both exciting for two different reasons.

Posted by: DDAWD | July 30, 2008 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Now that Bounds has told FOX that McC does not speak for McC's campaign, Portman's chances look worse. Any campaign is a marketing exercise to the PR flaks who run it. McC, who told Stephanopoulis that all remedies for SS would be on the table, needs Portman. His campaign, that denied McC spoke for the campaign, will want someone pliable and compliant, with less substance than Portman.

Posted by: MarkInAustin | July 30, 2008 8:07 AM | Report abuse

McCain needs SOMETHING to energize his campaign and give voters a sense that voting for him is not merely a vote against Barack Obama. Portman is an "intriguing" choice when "exciting" is called for. But, so far, his trial balloons have elicited yawns and time is growing short. If he doesn't come up with a VP pick before the Olympics begin, he will have ceded another tactical victory to the Democrats whose convention comes immediately following the end of the games.

Posted by: dch | July 30, 2008 8:05 AM | Report abuse

How about doing the case for Peter King ?

I bet your readers would be very interested in his pros and then of course cons.

VJ Machiavelli

Posted by: VJ Machiavelli | July 30, 2008 7:39 AM | Report abuse

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