After glad-handing his way around the Ohio State Fair in 2010, Republican Rob Portman relaxed in his cramped campaign motor home and described what type of U.S. senator he would be if he defeated Democrat Lee Fisher that November.
“If voters hire me, I assume they’re hiring me to get results, not just to play partisan politics,” Portman said.
Through 12 years in the U.S. House, Portman said, he had established a reputation as an independent-minded lawmaker who eschewed partisanship to accomplish things for his constituents.
“I’m very proud of my record in Congress,” Portman told me in 2009 as he geared up for his Senate bid. “I was independent to the point of working with Democrats a lot. In fact, sometimes Republican leadership wasn’t happy with me because I worked with Democrats so much.”
Portman’s bipartisanship hardly made him a tea party darling, as was evident in a 2010 Washington Times interview with Chris Littleton, then president of the Ohio Liberty Council, for a story about Portman: “Nobody in our movement dislikes him, but there is no strong feeling of advocacy for him either,” Littleton said.
Since then, Littleton has warmed up to Portman, telling me on Thursday that Portman’s office frequently reaches out to him to relay the senator’s thinking on various issues.
“There’s a healthy respect for Rob Portman that exists, even if there are policy differences,” said Littleton, now head of the tea party group Ohio Rising. “I don’t agree with everything he does, but I’m pleased with his approach to every problem.”
Portman came within a whisker of becoming GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate last year and now is touted as a potential 2016 candidate for president.
It is difficult to argue that Portman isn’t presidential timber. His impressive resume includes stints as federal budget director and U.S. trade representative. There is everything to like about his manner and approach — polite and optimistic, convinced that reason and comity can prevail in the grubby world of politics.
But it is evident that Portman now sees a need to assert his conservative credentials to be viable for a GOP presidential primary. That calculation is causing his carefully nurtured reputation for bipartisanship to take a hit.
The latest evidence came Wednesday when he joined a Senate Republican filibuster to block President Barack Obama’s appointment of Xenia native Caitlin Halligan to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, even though Halligan easily met a long-ago threshold for a federal appointment — she’s qualified.
Portman said he opposes Halligan because she is “a judicial activist,” but it’s hard to imagine that vehement conservative hostility to her from the Family Research Council and the National Rifle Association didn’t influence his opposition.
Portman also joined Senate Republicans’ first-ever effort to delay a vote to confirm a secretary of defense after conservative groups strongly opposed former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
But perhaps most disconcerting to many fair-minded Ohioans is that Portman didn’t get behind Obama’s nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Cordray, a Democrat, is qualified for the job and has performed it admirably for the past year.
Portman has indicated that he won’t support his fellow Ohioan unless there are changes made to the law that created Cordray’s watchdog agency.
Holding a qualified appointee hostage just to force changes in a law you don’t like could only bring more dysfunction to Washington.
Portman’s actions of late might position him well for a Republican presidential run in Iowa and New Hampshire, but they’re not helping him at home.
Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org