Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rob Portman's risk

My wife and I recently made a big mistake -- we went to a Mexican restaurant called "Los Amigos" for the second time.

There are a couple reasons why "Los Amigos" was a mistake.

a. The first time we went, one of our friends immediately walked outside and vomited so hard that a homeless guy ran over to ask if he could help.

b. The second time we went I ordered Nachos.

Los Amigos brought the platter out, and it looked like the worst perversion of cheese since Tony Mandarich put on a Packers uniform. Cold. Pallid. Velveeta.

I took a bite, gagged, then walked the nachos back to the kitchen while thinking that the novelist John Cheever must have had just these nachos in mind when he wrote, “How pitifully exposed are all our struggles towards youth and beauty."

I thought about mentioning that when I handed them to the waitress, but since there was a language difference, I stuck with, "This cheese isn’t too good," and nicely handed her the plate.

But her English was poor, and she thought I was asking for more cheese.

So, essentially, this was the next five minutes.

Me: "I’m sorry, but this is pretty bad."
Her: "You want more cheese?"
Me: "No, this cheese is bad. It just doesn't taste like cheese.
Her: “Okay, I will get you more cheese.”
Me: “No, I don’t like the cheese.”
Her: (Taking plate) "Yes, then I'll get you more cheese."

And she went off and grabbed more cheese.

I was too nice to fuss anymore, so once she’d returned with even more cheese on the nachos, I just sat back and looked at them bitterly, and every few minutes, tried a bite to see if they still sucked.

Yup, still sucked.

So I hope you're getting my analogy.

To many voters...

a. George W. Bush is "Los Amigos" -- really, really nice and friendly, but not a place most voters want to eat again (He's the most unpopular living president. Even more so than Jimmy Carter, and no one likes Jimmy Carter).

b. Rob Portman was a cook in the "Los Amigos" kitchen (more accurately, a budget director and trade representative for Bush).

Now, sure... Portman wasn’t directly responsible for The Nacho Hindenburg, and shouldn't be blamed for The Nacho Hindenburg.

But he was in the kitchen when the Nacho Hindenburg was made, he was wearing a chef’s hat, and he was part of the Los Amigos staff.

He didn’t make the cheese, but does that really matter?

Do customers really make those distinctions after eating The Nacho Hindenburg? I know I didn’t. I blamed “Los Amigos” and didn’t compartmentalize.

We’ve just spent the last month watching the Obama and Romney campaigns level increasingly out-of-context attacks that completely ignore, blur, and distort meaningful and obvious distinctions.

Does anyone really think that Obama and the labor unions will respectfully recognize the fact that Portman bears almost no blame for The Nacho Hindenburg? Political candidates have been felled for less.

And if someone calls out Obama and his allies for misrepresenting Portman’s service with Bush, will that matter? The Washington Posts' Pinocchios are nice and all, but they didn’t stop Restore Our Future in the primaries, and they won’t stop either campaign in the general.

In short, Portman's mere association with W. Bush is a huge problem for him.

As far as I’m concerned, I could end this post right here, rest my case, and start sipping on margaritas with T-Paw at that margarita bar he and I are starting near the Pacific Ocean.

It’s that simple.

BUT… in case you wanted to know more about specific charges regarding Portman’s service with Bush, here’s the almost superfluous “more”.

1. Portman served as U.S. TRADE REPRESENTATIVE (2005-2006).

Let’s start with the political positives.

This position shows he has experience. Give Portman 2 points.

But that experience is with the Bush Administration. Deduct 4 points.

That experience involves the words “trade representative”, which makes people think of trade imbalances. Deduct 1 point.

Portman was a trade representative with Bush, and people are accusing Romney of shipping jobs overseas while at Bain. People hear “trade” and “Bain”, make the connection and suddenly you have to deduct 2 more points.

So we’re at -5 points on cosmetic reasons alone, and that’s about as far as much of the electorate goes in evaluating candidates.

Whether that's fair to Portman or not, it just is. That three legged dog deserves four legs, but sometimes a car speeds up.

Now, as far as the substance of his service and its potential baggage, let’s take a look at the two fiercest complaints his Democratic challenger, Lee Fisher, hit him with during their 2010 Senatorial race in Ohio.

The first charge is that Portman exploded the trade deficit with China (Watch this campaign ad. Bush’s name pops up twice and so does a pic of Portman and Bush shaking hands).

Any merit to these?

Well, as they say on the game show that should but doesn’t exist….”Let's.. Go.. To... The... Politifact, Vanna!!"

We found that the trade deficit went up by almost $228 billion over that 13-month period. For comparison's sake, we looked at the 13 months prior to Portman taking the job. We found that the trade deficit with China rose by about $189 million during that period.

Comparing those two numbers, the cumulative trade deficit under Portman was about 21 percent higher than it was for the equivalent time period just before he took office.

The creatively-named fact-checking site, "FactCheck.Org", notes, though, that the trade deficit grew by +20% in five of Bill Clinton's eight years as president.

In other words, The Trade Deficit isn't and wasn't solely a Rob Portman Production in Association with W Pictures. Everyone else has been making the same movie, too.

Lee Fisher also charged that 100,000 Ohio jobs were sent overseas while Portman was Trade Representative.

Fact Check.Org says that's flat wrong.

100K jobs were lost over a six year period, but Portman was only Trade Representative for one year. So that's like blaming Jim Harbaugh for the 49ers record from 2003-2011.

But does the accuracy of that even matter?

In the end, his effect on the ticket probably won’t rise or fall based on whether the trade deficit grew by 21% when he was Trade Czar or how you count up job losses.

Instead, it will rise or fall based on voters’ visceral reactions to the Bush years.

Of course, the counter is that Ohio voters knew all about his Bush connections when they put him into the Senate in a 2010 landslide.

But the counter to that is that 2010 was an off and anomalous year, and most significantly, it’s very difficult to generalize from a state to a national election, and even harder in an off to presidential year.

2. Portman served as Director of the OMB (2006-2007).

Of his two positions with Bush, this is, by far, the more politically-damaging gig.

When you say someone was "Budget Director for Bush", here are a couple things that immediately pop to mind: Helmsman for the Titanic, Accountant for Enron, and Dan Brown’s creative writing teacher.

Conservatives are the very first to bash Bush for those derelict years .

Jonah Goldberg even suggested recently (in a post titled "Memo to Mitt: Run Against Bush") that Romney should repudiate Bush in some fashion over spending and the deficit.

On Bush’s watch, education spending more than doubled, the government enacted the biggest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society (Medicare Part D), and we created a vast new government agency (the Department of Homeland Security).

…. Romney is under no obligation to defend the Republican performance during the Bush years.

Indeed, if he’s serious about fixing what’s wrong with Washington, he has an obligation not to defend it. This is an argument that the Tea Party — which famously dealt Obama’s party a shellacking in 2010 — and independents alike are entirely open to. Voters don’t want a president to rein in runaway Democratic spending; they want one to rein in runaway Washington spending.

Now what's going to happen when you tell Americans you're picking the "budget director" during that mess (even if it was only one year) to be your #2?

You start from the ten yard line instead of from the twenty. You have to run 150 meters when you should only have to run 100 and so on.

Right now, Romney is consistently beating Obama by double-digits when it comes to the deficit and spending. Why would he jeopardize that by allowing Bush’s name – in whatever form – back into the race?

Naysayers will claim that people don’t vote for the vice-president (true), but the counter is that vice-presidents can either reinforce or wreak havoc on an image the presidential candidate is trying to build, and the largely unknown Romney is still in “trying to build” mode.

Obama would thrill at the opportunity for a sharper injection of Bush into the national dialogue.

Mitch Daniels (also a budget director during Bush's administration) once said "we would love to get back to the deficits" of the Bush years (i.e. the deficits weren't as bad as now), but if Romney and Portman rely on that argument, woe are they.

So again, the mere optics of all this should be enough to raise serious red flags and I could rest my argument there and get back to work on starting that margarita bar with T-Paw near the Pacific Ocean, but for pumped-up kicks, let’s quickly take a look at some of the substantive accusations against Portman on this score and see if they subtract from his appeal by adding up.

Portman was OMB director for approximately 15 months. During that time he worked on the 2008 budget, which ended up more than doubling the deficit.

His defense?

He claims the proposal was much more austere than the final product, and charged Democrats in Congress with puffing it up to its puffiest size.

As usual, there are disputes about who deserves the blame, how much a budget director actually does, and whether things got really bad after Portman left.

But Politifact seems to side mostly with Portman on this one.

Since the president's budget is essentially a wish list that is always subject to negotiation before implementation, we don't buy the argument that Portman should simply be judged on the initial proposal in the budget process.

Gene Steuerle, an economist at the liberal-leaning Urban Institute, says that the final deficit numbers owed at least as much, if not more, to decisions and events after Portman had left OMB, including Bush's economic stimulus package -- the financial bailout and the decline in tax revenues that followed the official start of the recession in December 2007.

Yet it's undeniable, Politifact notes, that the deficit did get bigger "on Portman's watch."

That phrase "On X's watch" is notoriously nebulous at assigning blame, but it's definitely spinnable into something dark and sinister.

Right now we're seeing a lot of excuses for why Portman’s stint as budget director doesn’t matter.

People strenuously note that the budget director for fifteen months can’t be blamed for all those many years, and that well-mannered, civilly-minded folks will ensure this distinction is made.

You know, as well as I, that the minute he's tapped, that distinction will be blurred in the biographies that are quickly strewn across the TV and on print.

Parsing would slow things down, add too many caveats, get too deep, and be far too technical.

Simply put: If the Romney team is relying on the good graces of Narrative America to fix anything bad about Portman’s relationship with the Bush Administration, woe are they.

Before I sign off, I’ll leave one final question hanging in your mind.

Is THE REST of Portman compelling enough to overcome the Bush in him? That's a calculation Romney will have to make.