Rob Portman, a long-serving senator from Ohio, is Greene’s antithesis. Over many decades in Washington, he has developed a reputation as a sober and serious policy wonk. His decision to retire next year has been greeted with predictable hand wringing. A Wall Street Journal columnist lamented: “He is a rightly respected figure. He tries to advance serious legislation. He doesn’t spend all his time talking on television.”
Yet if we are to apportion responsibility for the Republican Party’s descent into irrationality and authoritarianism, I would argue that Portman is far more to blame than Greene. That’s because there are a lot more Portmans than Greenes in Congress. Greene’s kookiness resonates with many GOP voters (30 percent of Republicans expressed a positive view of QAnon in a recent poll), but there are only a few House members who are as flaky as she is. However, the House and especially the Senate are full of Portman types: long-serving, mainstream Republicans who pride themselves on being practical problem-solvers — but who did not lift a finger to stop the takeover of their party by the lunatic fringe.
Portman announced in October 2016 that he could no longer support Donald Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which the GOP presidential candidate bragged about assaulting women. Yet after Trump won, Portman did support him. He compiled one of the most pro-Trump voting records in Congress, voting with the president’s positions 88.3 percent of the time. That’s actually higher than Trump lickspittles Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
Portman is now critical of President Biden for pursuing a $1.9 trillion economic relief package without any Republican support. (Portman favors a much smaller alternative advanced by 10 Republicans.) Yet Trump pushed his most ambitious pieces of legislation — a $1.5 trillion tax cut and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — without making any attempt to win Democratic support. And both times Portman voted for the GOP legislation. Portman also supported the outrageous Republican decision not to grant a hearing to President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in an election year while approving Trump’s nominee right before the 2020 election on a party-line vote. Republicans such as Portman use calls for “unity” as a code word for Democratic concessions.
Portman claims to have “respectfully” disagreed with Trump at least 50 times. “Toothlessly” is more like it. After Trump called the white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people,” for example, Portman tut-tutted: “It was an opportunity to draw a very clear line and to say, that in this country, hatred and bigotry are condemned.” Portman could never say the obvious — that Trump was a racist appealing to bigots.
Portman often appeared to know that Trump was wrong — he just couldn’t bring himself to do anything about it. He admitted that Trump’s attempt to blackmail Ukraine was “wrong and inappropriate,” but he still voted against impeachment because he claimed it would be just too darn divisive to convict “in the middle of a presidential election.” That would imply Portman wanted to hold Trump accountable at the ballot box — except that he endorsed Trump’s reelection effort and then initially supported Trump’s odious attempt to challenge his defeat. (Portman waited more than a month after the election to accept the result.)
Last week, Portman voted to dismiss Trump’s impeachment for inciting a violent insurrection — actions that he denounced as “inexcusable” — on the specious grounds that a president can’t be impeached after leaving office. Portman suggested in an interview with the Dispatch that next week’s trial is a waste of time because “There’s not going to be a conviction. We all know that.” Talk about a tautology. Of course, there won’t be a conviction if middle-of-the-road Republicans such as Portman vote to acquit. But if Portman had the guts to impeach, others might follow suit and Trump might actually be convicted.
Even now, Portman is willfully blind to the damage Trump has done. Here is how he sums up a presidency that resulted in more than 400,000 dead Americans and the storming of the Capitol: “From a policy point of view, it was a pretty good four years, in my view.” It was actually a horrific four years, and Portman bears a lot of the blame along with Trump’s other enablers.
Maybe the junior senator from Ohio and other mainstream Republicans couldn’t have stopped the Trumpist takeover of their party if they had tried. But they didn’t try. The cowardice of Rob Portman has done more damage to the Republican Party — and the republic — than the craziness of Marjorie Taylor Greene.