Buckeye budgeteer: GOP Sen. Rob Portman

No sooner had Sen. Rob Portman welcomed HUMAN EVENTS intern Terrance Williams and me to his Senate office March 21 than the freshman Republican from Ohio walked us into an adjoining conference room. Looking down at us from a painting on the wall was Portman’s political hero: Ohio Republican Sen. Robert A. Taft.

“This is the ‘Bob Taft’ conference room,” said Portman, proudly telling us we were in the same conference room used by the revered conservative senator from the Buckeye State (1938-53) who unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination three times.

Aware that young Terrance might not be familiar with Taft, Portman patiently explained why the senator and son of a president was a national leader conservatives admired in the post-World War II years as they later would Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. He spoke of Taft’s commitment to a balanced budget, reduced taxes and the landmark labor reform measure that bears his name: the Taft-Hartley Act.

Underscoring his admiration for Taft, the 55-year-old Portman’s brings out a copy of Mr. Republican, James Patterson’s definitive biography of Taft. On the bookshelf to the right of the senator’s desk sits 1948, historian David Pietrusza’s much-praised new book on the election in which Taft made his second bid for the GOP presidential standard.

In many ways, Rob Portman is like Robert Taft in his early years as a senator: someone colleagues and Republicans outside Congress look to for guidance and leadership on key issues. As head of the Office of Management and Budget in George W. Bush’s second term, Portman is considered one of the premier authorities on spending and budget matters in Congress.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan Law School, the young Portman served as a White House staffer under the elder George Bush. In 1992, when then-Republican Rep. Bill Gradison was considering whether to run again, Portman recalled, “that’s when [Ohio GOP Rep. and present House Speaker] John Boehner took me out to lunch and said, ‘Get ready.’ And that’s why I’m here today, probably, because he got me thinking about running for Congress.”

Gradison did run again and win in ’92, but then resigned to take a private-sector job. With help from some hard-hitting radio commercials by First Lady Barbara Bush, Portman won the special election and held the district until ’05, when George W. Bush tapped him to be U.S. trade representative. After that, he became Bush’s budget boss.

And that led to our obvious first question: Is the country ever going to get a budget?

On the Ryan plan—and whether we get a budget at all

“It is unbelievable to me that, in a time of record deficits and debt, we’re not even doing a budget,” Portman told us. “The Senate has not done a budget now for three years. We have no blueprint as to how we get out of this mess because the Senate leadership refuses to even bring a budget to the floor for consideration. And I’m on the Budget Committee and, frankly, I’m a little bored because I’m not doing anything in terms of the budget.”

The reason Congress is not moving forward, insisted Portman, “is that the Democratic leadership of the Senate refuses to even begin the process. The House will pass a budget again this year I believe. They passed one last year. I voted for it. I’m likely to support it again this year. Do I agree with everything in it? No, you never do in a budget. They are incredibly comprehensive documents, because they deal with both the revenue and the spending side.

Turning to Terrance, Portman said, “I feel strongly that we need to have a responsible answer to the question that your generation is asking, which is, are we going to leave you holding the bag. Are we going to leave you with a budget deficit that is so significant that you can not have the kind of opportunities that your parents and grandparents had. Are we going to care more about the next election or the next generation? That’s what’s at stake here.”

With House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) having unveiled the House budget plan just days before our interview, Portman says, without hesitation: “I like it. I voted for it last time. I like the idea of the approach to Medicare where you give people a choice. I believe people will choose the private plans because I think they’ll offer them more benefits and more flexibility and seniors will make an informed choice. So I think that’s the way to go and it also has the advantage of putting Medicare more into a market -based, consumer-oriented or patient-centric system, where private sector plans are competing for their business.”

Because he is so closely identified with budget and spending issues, Portman’s commitment to social conservatism is sometimes questioned. But the senator, who is strongly pro-life, voted a conservative line (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89 percent) on most issues during his years in the U.S. House.

“Social issues are very important,” he says, “But, they’re not, in my view, the central issue of the campaign this year. The central issues are going to be issues where Congress and an administration can make or break our economy. It is creating the climate for success or the climate for overregulation, higher taxes and failure.” “I think that’s the central challenge of our time: How to get the debt and deficit under control, and how to create an environment for economic success. T hat’s why we’ve been on this jobs plan. We had a jobs plan in the campaign. I then brought it to Congress. I got all 47 [Republican] senators to support it. It’s a common sense approach saying, tax reform regulatory relief, healthcare cost reduction, energy production. Those are the central issues.”

Will Portman, like Taft, run nationally after one year?

“Romney owes Portman big-time,” was a mantra among political junkies that made the rounds on Twitter March 20, the evening of the Ohio presidential primary. In eking out a win over Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney had strong campaign assistance from freshman Sen. Portman and the former Massachusetts governor performed exceptionally well in Cincinnati—Portman country, where the senator comes from and where he was a popular congressman for a dozen years.

Along with helping Romney to win a key primary and his own impressive resume, Portman is touted as a vice presidential candidate because it is widely thought he could guarantee the GOP ticket the Buckeye State’s 19 electoral votes. Speaking in Pennsylvania last week, veteran pollster and Fox News commentator Frank Luntz listed Portman as one of four possible running mates for Romney who could get a key state that went to Obama in ’08 to flip to the Republican ticket in ’12. With one exception—1960, when it went for Richard Nixon over John Kennedy—has Ohio not given its electoral votes to a winning candidate for president. (The other three Luntz suggested were Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida [29 electoral votes], Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin [10] and Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia [13].)

And to the “yes, but” rejoinder that Portman has served less than one year in the Senate, Portman promoters point out that his overall credentials are truly gilt-edged. And, they note, Bob Taft was so recognized as a leader in the Senate soon after his initial election in 1938 that no one complained about his being there too briefly when he made his first bid for the White House in 1940.

But Portman insists he’s not interested in the Veep nod and says that Ohio’s electoral votes will go for the Republican ticket without him on it. In his words, “I think the independent voters who will make the difference in a state like Ohio are increasingly concerned about the budget deficit and the economy, and those are Romney’s strengths.” As for the Republican voters, the senator believes that “Republicans are excited. They’re excited about replacing Barack Obama. Honestly, If you look at the polling and the focus groups, most of the energy right now and enthusiasm is on our side. So I’m not as worried about that this year, in terms of getting people to the polls.”

Portman personally likes fellow freshman Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as their party’s vice presidential nominee. He also described Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as “an interesting choice… another former OMB director who understands how to balance budgets.”

When I reminded him that Calvin Coolidge’s Vice President Charles Dawes had been head of what was then called the Bureau of the Budget, Portman leaned back, smiled, and said: “The history of the job is fascinating. When you’re putting together the biggest budget in the world, everybody comes to you and says, ‘I need my thing’ and you have to say, ‘No, this is how it’s gonna be.’ Anyway, it’s a great learning experience.”

Spending a morning with Rob Portman will convince just about any visitor that he has indeed just had “a great learning experience” and that Portman will be teaching his colleagues, his party and the public about spending and budget issues for a long time to come.