Remember Rob Portman? The Beltway insider and Bush family fave who made Mitt Romney’s short list for veep?
The senator from Ohio who endorsed gay marriage after his son came out? The nuanced fiscal expert who has all the charisma of iceberg lettuce?
Yeah, that guy. Portman is big in the news this week, hailing the GOP’s choice of Cleveland for its ’16 national convention, and hoping (via a trial balloon) that perhaps he can leverage his home-field advantage into a presidential nomination. And hey, given the fluidity in the Republican race – lightweight Rand Paul actually tops the list, with a whopping 11 percent support – why shouldn’t Portman offer to fill the void? With Hillary Clinton seemingly poised to clobber all the usual suspects, why shouldn’t Portman dream of winning the nod in Cleveland?
Portman reportedly lobbied hard for an Ohio convention venue, and on paper it’s easy to see why. Ohio is arguably the ultimate swing state; it hasn’t voted for the losing candidate since Dick Nixon in 1960. And Ohio is historically crucial to the GOP’s electoral prospects; no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, going all the way back to Abe Lincoln in 1860.
But there’s no guarantee that the GOP will win Ohio in ’16 just because it will have covened in Ohio. The party convened in swing-state Florida in ’12, but lost Florida anyway. The party convened in Minnesota in ’08, but it lost Minnesota anyway. The party convened in New York in ’04, in Pennsylvania in ’00, and in California in ’96, but it lost those states anyway.
Nevertheless, the GOP was probably smart this week to choose Ohio, because the second choice – Texas, with its nutcase party platform – would’ve reminded swing voters that Republicans are too beholden to their southern/Sunbelt conservative base.
Enter Rob Portman. He has this wild and crazy theory that the GOP can’t win in ’16 unless it broadens its appeal beyond the base. And if the candidates with the widest potential appeal can’t ignite – if Chris Christie is too burdened by scandal and if Jeb Bush lacks the appetite to fight – then perhaps Portman can launch from Ohio. His soundbite: “I’m not particularly eager to do it myself, and having been involved in six presidential campaigns, I know what it’s like. But if nobody running is able to win and willing to address these issues, then I might have a change of heart.”
OK, that’s not much of a soundbite. But that’s how the guy talks. He doesn’t dazzle with words, nor is he big on visceral excitement. As the home-town Cleveland Plain Dealer delicately puts it, “His stage presence is not made for prime time.” And if he were to launch a presidential bid, his charisma deficit would be a big drawback. On that score, he makes Romney look like Reagan.
Actually, Portman’s biggest drawback says more about today’s GOP than it says about him. He’s a serious guy who believes in serious governing – whereas today’s GOP, and especially its tea-party wing, hates governing.
His top traits would probably detonate heads on the rabid right. Check out these passages in the Washington Post trial balloon: Portman believes in “forging relationships across the party divide.” He wants the Republicans “to build a bigger tent.” He has a “lengthy Beltway resume and the widespread goodwill from the GOP’s political class.” He is described as “pragmatic.” And Mitt Romney, full of praise, calls him “a mainstream practical Republican.”
Portman is a fiscal conservative who opposes Obamacare, but uh oh – he’s pragmatic, mainstream, practical. Worse yet, there are times when he works with Democrats. You have to wonder whether a guy like that can survive the early Republican contests, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina. Which brings us to the gay marriage factor.
The American mainstream is fine with gays getting married; back in March, a national poll found that 59 percent support it, and only 34 percent oppose it. But that’s not how people think in the conservative fever swamp – and the question is whether Portman would be able to navigate it. As a longtime congressman, he had voted repeatedly against gay marriage, but he switched sides last year when he announced that his college-age son was gay.
He told CNN, “I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the same joy and stability of marriage that Ive had for over 26 years. That I want all of my children to have, including our son.” He’d be the first GOP presidential candidate to support gay marriage (Jon Huntsman endorsed it after his ’12 bid), and he ties his stance to the party’s urgent need for outreach – particularly to young voters, who support gay marriage in a landslide.
Yesterday, Portman was quoted saying: “You can’t become a national party unless you do a better job reaching those between 18 and 30. They are the voters of tomorrow, and we want them to listen to us on jobs and Obamacare.” On the other hand, he recently told a conservative think tank that his gay marriage stance “probably makes it difficult for me to win a primary election.”
It’d be fun to see him try, if only to see whether the GOP has the brains to escape its ideological bunker. But that race is still a ways off. For now, let’s just say, “Hello, Cleveland!”
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1