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Should We Rue Rob Portman's Decision Not To Run For President?

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, conducts a town hall meeting with employees after an October 2014 tour of Harris Products Group in Mason, Ohio.
Al Behrman
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, conducts a town hall meeting with employees after an October 2014 tour of Harris Products Group in Mason, Ohio.

This just in: At least one Republican in Washington has decided he doesn't want to be president.

OK, that's not exactly what Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said. He said he wasn't running for president. Obviously, there is a difference. Nothing is more common in politics than a would-be mayor/governor/president who wishes he or she could just be appointed to the job.

Still, it's rare to see a not-running announcement provoke head-wagging and hand-wringing. Portman's had that effect because he exemplifies the kind of thoughtful, competent, mainstream personality many idealize in the Oval Office.

Why oh why, the question goes, aren't there more candidates like...you know, that guy everybody likes ... what's his name ... Rob Portman?

Portman is a well-mannered Midwestern Methodist, still in his 50s and still in his first elected Senate term after a dozen years in the House. He served two presidents in demanding administration posts: legislative director for the first President Bush and both trade representative and budget director for the second.

He is reliably Republican but not ideological. Known for his skill at negotiating and finding consensus, he counts Democrats among his friends both in Washington and back home in Cincinnati.

In short, his resume sets him apart from many of his colleagues in the Class of 2010, the year of the great Tea Party tide. But that movement is already well-represented in the presidential field now forming in the GOP. Some had hoped Portman would offer a more moderate option on that menu.

Thus Portman's decision may signal that he expects Jeb Bush to run, and if indeed the former Florida governor does get in he will have first call on the allies and assets of his clan.

Portman may also have concluded that Mitt Romney will find the lure of a second shot too strong to resist, especially if Jeb Bush demurs. Either Romney or Bush would begin the race light-years ahead of Portman.

But is that why the Ohioan stepped back? There may be something to be said for taking a man at his word — even if that man is a politician. And Portman says he doesn't think he could do a good job of representing Ohio while running for president. That's especially important because Portman will be up for re-election back home in 2016.

Can't you run for president from the floor of the Senate?

Well, sure. Lots of people have. It has been said that half the Senate looks in the mirror in the morning and hears a band somewhere playing "Hail to the Chief."

There was this guy named Barack Obama who did it in 2008, having served half as long as Portman has in the Senate (and having held no other posts in Washington). And the Republican whom Obama wound up facing that fall was John McCain of Arizona, who was running from the Senate for the second time. And they were far from being the only senators chasing the brass ring that cycle.

Four years earlier, Democratic nominee John Kerry and running mate John Edwards were both senators, as were major contenders in 2000 and 1996 and so on.

Senators have flown the chamber and flocked to primary states despite the poor showings of their predecessors. Before Obama, the last sitting senator to go directly to the presidency was John F. Kennedy in 1960, and the last before that was Warren G. Harding in 1920.

(Others have made it to the Oval Office, but only after the way station of the vice presidency.)

Senators seeking the White House have at times used the Senate and its C-SPAN cameras as campaign tools, as when Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri gave a series of "addresses on the issues" in 1998 (before deciding to leave the race early in 1999).

But more often they disguise themselves as empty chairs on the Senate floor and turn up daily in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or one of the money centers where campaign treasuries refuel.

That tends not to play too well back home, as the missed votes pile up and bad stories get written. But McCain survived it, winning re-election two years after his loss to Obama, and Obama himself apparently felt the risk was worth taking in his case. Rand Paul, an incumbent senator from Kentucky, is working hard to overturn a law in his state that would make him choose between running for president and running for re-election in 2016.

However much we might respect the energy and drive of those who run for president while holding on to Senate seats, there persists a sense that something is being sacrificed. And if it is not a sacrifice for the candidate, it may be for his or her constituents.

Portman's reluctance to take this route may be a pose or a cover story. Or it may be another reason we should all regret his decision to pass on presidential politics.

So long, senator. But don't forget to leave a call-back number.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.