Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio, announced yesterday that he will not seek re-election in 2022, saying that because of the increasing amount of polarization in the country, it was “a tough time to be in public service.”
Sure, Rob. I suppose it is a tough time to be in public service. A senator from a split-party state not seeking re-election in two years is a relatively major story, and it’s notable that Portman’s reasons for quitting are basically “I don’t want to do this anymore.” But MSNBC morning anchor and long-time Capitol Hill reporter Kasie Hunt saw it as something more existential, and went to bat in a short monologue this morning for a politician she has “covered for many years.”
I can see what Hunt’s intent was here. The point she made, at the end of the monologue, is that we as a society are worse off if good people don’t want to serve anymore. The more incisive read of the situation is that Portman realized that the future of the Republican party was not one he could participate in and still keep his reputation as a “serious and sincere legislator,” as the only way forward for the GOP is to double down on the underhanded, anti-democratic and fundamentally amoral politics it practiced openly during the Trump years.
What Hunt overlooked, of course, is that the GOP has been doing this kind of work since its inception. Portman may be a “serious and sincere” legislator, but he chose to use that sincerity to represent a party whose policies have literally nothing to offer to an equal and democratic society. But let’s not be naive: that’s not something that a person like Kasie Hunt is ever going to say on air. We won’t hold her to that high standard of basic political logic — this is cable news, after all.
Even the dumbest and most centrism-poisoned journalist should still be able to grasp the concept that a person’s public deeds matter more than their personal qualities. And on those, of course, Portman has shown us who he really is. Hunt described Portman as someone who has “worked with other people across the aisle on incredibly important issues.” This is true, to an extent. Portman was the primary sponsor on 39 bills that were enacted into law, a relatively prolific total for his term and a half in the Senate. Many of them had bipartisan support, some of them overwhelmingly. But if you look at what those bills actually were, his career starts to look a little bit more mundane. Some of the largest bipartisan bills he passed were important, yes, but hardly political risks, like the “Restore Our Parks Act” that tweaked the revenue sharing model of state energy taxes to create a new federal funding stream for National Parks. Great, good. Wonderful. The only people who objected to this were a handful of Republican senators from the south whose states would lose out on some of that sweet Gulf of Mexico drilling money. Congratulations, Rob.*
But what about Portman’s record when he wasn’t “reaching across the aisle”? There, you will probably be surprised to note, things do not look so good. Per 538, Portman voted with President Trump 88.3 percent of the time, rubber stamping, in brief: Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Trump’s right to take military action against Iran without congressional approval, repealing EPA regulations on emissions, Eugene fucking Scalia’s nomination to be Secretary of Labor, Trump’s veto of a (bipartisan!) bill blocking arms sale to Saudi Arabia (ditto one for the UAE), further privatization of veteran’s healthcare, et cetera, et cetera. In a bit of perfect timing, Portman voted to block Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on the same day that Hunt was praising his bipartisan seriousness.
But I digress. I am sorry. This is not, really, a blog about Rob Portman. Rob Portman, I am sure, is perfectly fine in person, someone who cares for those he meets (provided he never has to meet a Yemeni villager) and conducts himself as a professional public servant. That, really, is the point. For two more years, Rob Portman will still be a public servant, someone who should be judged on the quality of service he provides, not on the niceties he bestows on reporters who cover him for years and then work their way up to the 5 a.m. hour on MSNBC.
We don’t elect politicians to be nice. We elect them to make the material conditions of our lives better. Giving them a eulogy when they decide to stop doing that job serves nothing and no one except the system that allows so many Rob Portmans to get away with fluff-bills and failure for the entirety of their career, lending their unwavering support to policies proposed by more callous peers which deliberately perpetuate the suffering of the people they supposedly represent. My hope is that more of the people ostensibly in charge of holding politicians to account eventually come around to this concept. Right now, it looks like it’s way too early.
*Other bipartisan achievements from Portman were mind-numbingly basic, like “A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 229 West Main Cross Street in Findlay, Ohio, as the Michael Garver Oxley Memorial Post Office Building,” (one Democratic cosponsor) and “A bill to exclude power supply circuits, drivers, and devices to be connected to, and power, light-emitting diodes or organic light-emitting diodes providing illumination or ceiling fans using direct current motors from energy conservation standards for external power supplies” (two Democratic cosponsors). Real feathers in cap stuff right there.