Boring is beautiful, sometimes

Published 12:48 am Sunday, June 17, 2012

Incredibly boring white guy. Vanilla, wonky and unflappable. Bloodless technocrat. Dry as dust.

Those are some of the phrases used recently to describe Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and in other years, they might disqualify him as a vice presidential candidate. But this year, boring is beautiful.

When comedian Stephen Colbert described a Romney-Portman ticket as “the bland leading the bland,” even the potential veep could not disagree. “I mean, it was a surprise,” Portman told The Washington Post, “but it was fine. To me, it’s not about being exciting.”

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Every presidential campaign is shaped by the previous one. President Barack Obama is trying — with only modest success — to duplicate the passion he generated four years ago. And Republicans are desperate to avoid the mistake they made in 2008 by picking Sarah Palin, an inexperienced and ignorant candidate who quickly became a huge liability.

Portman is the quintessential un-Palin, bland and boring, to be sure, but also safe and reliable. He will never claim to see Russia from his house in Cincinnati. More important, he is completely qualified to serve as president, perhaps even more qualified than Mitt Romney. “The guy was truly made for the job,” says Republican strategist Mark McKinnon.

The Israelis are known for their top-notch intelligence network, so it was significant recently when Portman flew to Tel Aviv and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. A freshman senator from the minority party does not usually get such treatment. But one who could wind up in the White House next year certainly does.

Four factors make Portman the ideal choice, and the first is obviously his home state. No Republican in modern times has won the presidency without Ohio, and Portman is a proven statewide vote getter, rolling up a 16-point margin two years ago and winning 82 of the state’s 88 counties. Any running mate has only a marginal impact, but a shift of fewer than 120,000 votes in Ohio would have made John Kerry president in 2004. This year is likely to be just as close.

Second, Portman has good political instincts. He’s never lost an election (winning seven House campaigns before his Senate run), and along the way he’s developed an unusual specialty: He plays the role of Democrats in preparing Republicans for high-level debates. He was so effective at channeling Obama that after one training session with John McCain, a GOP aide complained, “Portman just annihilated our guy.”

The third factor is Portman’s expertise in economics. His father was a small-business man (a nice complement to Romney’s father, who ran an auto company), and he held two jobs in Bush the Younger’s Cabinet: trade representative and budget director.

Presidential candidates often choose a running mate who compensates for a weakness: John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson to help him in the South; Bush chose Dick Cheney for his foreign policy and defense experience. But there is another strategy: Go for someone like you who reinforces your core message.

Bill Clinton did that in 1992, choosing Al Gore, a fellow border state baby boomer to emphasize the argument that he represented a new generation of moderate-leaning Democrats. Romney was always going to run on a platform of economic competence, and the latest gloomy job numbers only strengthen his argument. So would picking Portman.

The fourth reason in Portman’s favor is the actual job of vice president. Romney makes a big deal of the fact that he’s never served in Washington, and as an electoral strategy that makes sense. But if he wins, it sure would help to have someone at his side who knows the city and its players. In fact, Portman has real friends in Democratic ranks, of all places.

He is no centrist — his voting record is consistently about 90 percent conservative — but he is no inflexible ideologue, either. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who’s worked with Portman on tax and pension matters, says: “He’s a quality person. He’s very much interested in results.”

McCain picked Palin because he was way behind and needed to shake up the race. Romney is virtually tied with Obama and can afford to follow his more cautious instincts. He does not need to take a chance on a more colorful but less reliable option like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Things could change, of course, before the Republican convention in late August, but right now, bet on Portman to be sharing the stage with Romney in Tampa.

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at