When Sen. Rob Portman finished a speech and news conference Monday afternoon about the failure of the supercommittee on which he served, I attempted to bestow a premature label on the Ohio Republican.
“Thank you, Mr. Vice President.”
“That’s never going to happen,” Portman replied with a smile. As evidence, he offered, “What’s the one thing you wouldn’t want to do if you wanted to be the VP candidate? Join the supercommittee.”
I’m not convinced.
Had he joined the supercommittee and reached a debt-slashing deal, Portman’s political hopes might well have been doomed: The compromise would inevitably have included tax increases that are poison to the Republican voter base. But if he joined the supercommittee and refused to back down from the Republican no-new-taxes pledge, then the pyrrhic victory would — and did — leave Portman’s conservative credentials intact.
Democrats involved in the supercommittee tell me they’re disappointed in Portman, claiming he talked kumbaya in public but was unbending in private negotiations. They suspect he is looking out for his own ambitions, whether that means becoming the vice presidential nominee or rising into Senate leadership.
I hope he does get chosen as the vice presidential nominee. After the amateur hour that has been the GOP nominating process, the selection of a genuine grown-up such as Portman — a longtime House member and President George W. Bush’s trade representative and budget director — would be reassuring.
The problem is that Portman appears to feel the need to shed his sensible disposition and to stiff-arm the opposition in order to be considered seriously for a promotion.
When Portman appeared at the American Enterprise Institute to give his supercommittee postmortem, he struck a tone that was, for him, unusually partisan. Though he repeatedly spoke of the urgency of the debt problem, he spent more time blaming the Democrats.
“This administration has now presided over a 21 percent increase in the growth of government,” he charged. Portman accused Obama of “ignoring the recommendations … of his own debt-reduction committee” and of an “absence of presidential leadership.”
“In the end,” the senator said, “the same core philosophical differences that have paralyzed Congress from making progress also prevented the committee as well from coming to agreement.”
Undoubtedly. But the committee members’ task was to overcome the differences. Portman on Monday was, for the most part, emphasizing them.
“You’ve heard those pushing for trillions in higher taxes appeal to the need for a balanced approach,” he said. “The basic philosophy is I’ll give you a dollar in spending cuts if you give me a dollar in new taxes.” Actually, they’d give Portman two or three dollars in cuts for every dollar in new taxes — as evidenced by the same Bowles-Simpson commission Portman scolded Obama for ignoring.
Portman said Republicans had been willing to grant some increase in taxes (a matter of some dispute) but “we were not successful in that effort because most Democrats were not willing to work from that framework.”
Portman sought to explain away his earlier statement praising Democrats on the supercommittee for putting entitlement reform on the table: “I also said they only did so in the context of huge new tax increases.” As for why the supercommittee couldn’t reach even a small agreement, Portman said: “You’ll have to ask the Democrats.”
The member of the now-defunct committee said he would now attempt to enact some of the elements of the budget negotiations that Republicans favor, such as a tax reform package that doesn’t increase taxes. And he said he’ll seek to have any cuts in payroll taxes paid for by cutting mandatory programs, which include Medicare and Social Security.
The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez asked if he would support a Senate vote on the Bowles-Simpson proposal. Portman avoided commitment, saying there’s “no legislative language that’s vetted and scored.”
Even when serving red meat, Portman sounds calm and even, reading from his text in a monotone, licking his lips often, and spicing his talk with accounting terms such as sequesters and extenders and reconciliation.
“Clearly, Washington is not working,” he said when he reached the end of his text. “We’ve always come together as Americans to solve tough problems. … We can solve this problem too, but only if we work together as Republicans, Democrats and independents.”
I bet Portman believes that. He’s one of the good guys in this town. But all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.