Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is a top vice-presidential contender and it’s easy to see why. He is close with Mitt Romney, he is a prolific fundraiser, and he has advised every Republican presidential nominee since Reagan. But inside the Beltway, where veep speculation is rampant, talk of Portman’s short-list status inevitably includes a caveat. His tenure in President George W. Bush’s administration, where he held two senior posts from 2005 to 2007, is widely considered a political liability.
Portman, naturally, dismisses the conventional wisdom. In an interview, he acknowledges that Bush remains unpopular in certain circles, but he is “very proud” of his time with the 43rd president, especially his involvement with Bush’s efforts to balance the federal budget and broker free-trade agreements. “It was full of successes,” he says. “We made some real progress on fiscal discipline and on accountability for taxpayers.” Portman also played a key role in urging Bush to issue the first spending veto of his presidency.
Early in his second term, Bush tapped Portman, then a rising congressman, to serve as United States Trade Representative. As a former trade lawyer, Portman relished the job, from the World Trade Organization talks in Doha to his work on Capitol Hill to pass landmark pacts, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. A year later, Bush promoted Portman to the cabinet, where the Cincinnati Republican served as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Portman’s yearlong OMB stint, in particular, has resurfaced this week, thanks to a 300-page packet of opposition research, all of it Portman-related, that was dumped into reporters’ inboxes by American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC. The briefing book slams Portman for “claiming” to be a fiscal hawk, citing the increase in federal spending during the Bush years. The document is part of a series the group is publishing — “Veep Mistakes” — on Romney’s potential running mates.
Portman understands the clamor for partisan fodder, but he will push back, he says, as Democrats distort his Bush experience. Yes, he was the president’s confidant, and he was intimately involved in crafting the administration’s fiscal agenda, but that doesn’t mean he was a compliant cog in a deficit machine. “I was able to propose a balanced budget over five years and, frankly, that was a fight inside the White House,” he tells me. “Some people didn’t think that was worth the political risk.”
In background conversations, longtime Portman allies remember the senator quietly shifting Bush’s team to the right on fiscal issues, even when many on Pennsylvania Avenue were averse to making spending cuts and entitlement reform a priority. One former GOP lawmaker says Portman’s sway came from his relationships with Bush’s senior advisers. “On the budget, he could really prod Karl Rove and other aides, because they trusted him,” the lawmaker says. “He wasn’t looking to be the star.”
A U.S. News & World Report article from January 2007, a month before Portman officially unveiled his first budget, credits the Ohioan for winning the internal debate in the Oval Office between Bush aides who wanted more tax cuts included in the budget and Bush advisers who wanted a balanced budget to be the thrust of the proposal. “Portman really wanted this,” one insider told the publication. Concerns about future entitlement costs, Portman recalls, motivated him to speak up.
“There were Bush officials who did not want to include ugly cuts in the budget,” says Barry Bennett, a former Portman adviser. “Rob insisted on offering a balanced budget, which went against the political wisdom at the time, when spending was exploding but the deficit was relatively stable.” In his memoir, Decision Points, President Bush underscores the latter point, arguing that his administration’s “fiscal record was strong,” owing to the decreased debt-to-GDP ratio during parts of his second term.
For politicos, Bush’s rose-colored view of the debt versus the Democrats’ spotlight on the GOP’s spending binge is the central tension of Portman’s vice-presidential candidacy. Does Portman deserve credit for keeping the debt to an arguably reasonable level? Or, as a shepherd of both a balanced budget and spending increases, was he part of the regrettable fiscal irresponsibility that plagued the twilight of Bush’s presidency?