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Rob Portman: The Best of the Boring White Guys

Illustration by Ted Parker Close

Illustration by Ted Parker

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Illustration by Ted Parker

The minute Senator Rob Portman, the Republican from Ohio who helped Mitt Romney win his state’s primary, walked into the room, I knew that he would be the Republican vice presidential candidate.

As he conceded proudly, he is a Boring White Guy, which is the phrase of the moment after “a Republican official familiar with the campaign’s thinking” told Politico that’s what Romney is looking for in a running mate. (The actual phrase was “incredibly boring white guy,” but for our purposes the initials BWG will suffice.) What could be more perfect? Every steel-gray hair is the right length and in place. The blue shirt is unrumpled. He doesn’t try to talk and eat lunch at the same time. He couldn’t be more affable and well spoken.

As a BWG, Portman has a resume that bespeaks steady, incremental progress up the political ladder. Member of Congress? Check, in both chambers. White House official? Check. Cabinet-level experience? Check.

Those last two are especially important for Portman. Under George W. Bush, he served as U.S. trade representative, which along with speaking Spanish learned while working on a border ranch with Mexican cowboys, helps with the foreign-policy requirement. And as director of the Office of Management and Budget, he advised Bush to issue his first spending vetoes. BWGs don’t spend money they don’t have.

As befits a BWG, Portman’s 2010 campaign for Senate was as uneventful as it was successful. He won overwhelmingly, 57 percent to 39 percent, and has served responsibly ever since.

Triple Threat

I’m not picking on Portman, who visited the offices of Bloomberg View on Monday. BWGs make good husbands, excellent fathers and bipartisan collaborators, and by all accounts Portman is all three. There’s many a BWG among Democrats in the Senate: Herbert Kohl, Benjamin Cardin, Patrick Leahy (except for that part about being a Deadhead) and Dianne Feinstein (except for that part about being a woman). Aside from the obvious fact that he is African-American, President Barack Obama is a BWG, unless he is ordering a hit on Osama bin Laden or delivering a speech onstage.

At this point in the process last time, Romney was at the top of the list for presumptive Republican nominee Senator John McCain. Romney was a strong candidate in the BWG sweepstakes: a private-equity banker from Michigan with two Harvard degrees. But his vetting began just after McCain was famously asked how many houses he had. He couldn’t remember. When McCain’s advisers considered their candidate’s choices, they added the number of Romney’s houses to McCain’s and came up with 13. Romney immediately dropped off the list.

McCain didn’t want to go the BWG route anyway. He wanted to shake things up. His first idea was then-Democrat Joe Lieberman, a fusion ticket about which cooler (read: more partisan) heads prevailed. Eventually he settled on a kind of anti-BWG, and we all know how that worked out.

Sarah Palin surely fulfilled McCain’s wish for a game changer, though he just as surely did not know at the time how badly the changed game could go. For the foreseeable future, she has pretty much spoiled the chances of a first-term governor of either gender making the short list. Presidential nominees don’t repeat the mistakes of past failed candidates.

So what does Portman have aside from being a BWG? He shares Romney’s cautious, pleasant temperament. Most important, he seems willing to make arguments he doesn’t quite believe in on behalf of the man at the top of the ticket. When it comes to “vulture capitalism” at Bain Capital, which Romney helped found, Portman equates it with the business of his father, who started a forklift company. He valiantly defends Bain’s shuttering of a steel mill as an example of our free-market system at work.

Buddy Movies

Portman’s steadiness steadied Romney in Ohio -- no pretending a waitress pinched him, no blurting out how many Cadillacs can fit on his car elevator, no mention of how he likes “being able to fire people.” Their buddy movie played well compared with some others. Romney tends to be overshadowed when he’s with the bouncy Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who already has a budget named after him, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the savior of the Republican Hispanic vote. Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida wouldn’t fit because Romney would be dogged about why Bush isn’t at the top of the ticket.

With Portman, Romney would get the benefits of Jeb Bush -- someone capable of taking over -- without the unfortunate comparisons. That’s because Portman, like all BWGs, drinks no wine before its time (he prefers a made-in-Cleveland craft beer) and serves his apprenticeships patiently. He worked for his dad’s company, served George Bush the Elder in the White House counsel’s office, served George Bush the Younger in two positions. He’s now a good soldier for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Portman could well be president. But in the natural order of all things BWG, he was born to be vice president first. And Portman, like all BWGs considered for the No. 2 spot, is now letting it be known -- in a careful, orderly fashion, of course -- that he may not be as B as some other WGs.

He once smuggled a kayak into China to run the Yangtze River! He met his wife -- then a Democrat! -- on a blind date! Portman is also a hugger (though in a stolid, Ohio kind of way, not the kind of cocktail-party air-kiss you expect from, say, Senator John Kerry). Yes, Portman also coaches indoor soccer -- the “indoor” part is what clinches it as a BWG pastime -- because he can’t stray too far from the BWG herd.

The tricky part about being a BWG has always been the B: making yourself stand out from the pack, but not so much that you lose the letter altogether. Being a BWG is more exciting than it sounds.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

Today’s highlights: the View editors on a Greek exit from the euro and tariffs on Chinese solar products; Clive Crook on Germany and Greece; Peter Orszag on small-business woes; Jonathan Weil on JPMorgan Chase and regulators; Rachelle Bergstein on the economics of stiletto heels; and Zvi Bodie and Cornelius Hurley on the Office of Financial Research.

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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