The political world is abuzz with rumors about Mitt Romney’s short list of potential vice presidential candidates, and Ohio senator Rob Portman is apparently at the top. So far, the biggest knock on Portman in the media is that he’s boring — a Buckeye version of Romney.
But Portman is also something else: an ex-Bush administration official with a disastrous record, first as U.S. Trade Representative, and then as Director of the Office and Management and Budget. That the Romney campaign is seriously considering him as a running mate is staggering, given that Portman was knee-deep in the national calamity that was the second term of George W. Bush.
As the U.S. Trade Representative in 2005 and 2006, Portman, who voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement as a Congressman, took a dive against Chinese steel exporters, and in the process sacfriced American steelmakers on the altar of free trade. In 2005, China was flooding the U.S. market with scores of steel pipes, possibly in direct violation of anti-dumping laws. Whether this amounted to a violation was never decided by a trade court because Portman not only refused to take China to court, but with the blessing of his boss, declined to impose quotas on China’s steel exports in response as had been recommended by the U.S. International Trade Commission. Portman was also personally lobbied by then-Commerce Minister of China Bo Xilai (whose wife incidentally poisoned a business associate last year). The lobbying worked.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. steel industry proceeded to lose $150 million in profits and a slew of jobs over the next two years, but by that time Portman was no longer Trade Representative, having moved on to heading up Bush’s Office of Management and Budget.
Portman’s tenure as OMB director was brief — just over a year. But in that time he oversaw the budget process for fiscal year 2008, which saw an explosion of the deficit from $161 billion to $455 billion, a giant failure by any measure. That’s not stopping Portman from casting himself as an unheeded siren warning about ballooning deficits who was ignored by his own administration, as he recently did in an interview with The Hill. Republican insiders have rushed to his defense as well, portraying him not as a bad manager of the country’s finances, but a person who wanted to cut spending who was too ineffectual at seeing his policy recommendations implemented. Thus, Portman was either too incompetent to manage the country’s budget, or too meek to get his prescriptions into the final numbers. In either case, his record at the OMB was abysmal.
If Portman’s viability as a vice presidential candidate proves anything, it’s that in American politics almost anything is possible, mainly because no one can remember anything about it.