Portman Can’t Escape Hot Water
Rob Portman’s reversal on gay marriage still has social conservatives concerned
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on June 08, 2013 at 6:00 PM, updated June 08, 2013 at 9:01 PM
And when it comes to the IRS, Portman, an Ohio Republican, spotted a potential problem well before others. He demanded to know as early as 2012 why the tax agency targeted Ohio-based Tea Party groups for special scrutiny.
Yet despite these GOP bona fides, some social conservatives are asking of this lawmaker: Can they count on him to keep his word?
It’s a sour question for a politician whose reputation until now was as a no-pretense, stand-up guy, respected through six terms as a House of Representatives member, then as White House budget chief and now as a U.S. senator with presidential possibilities. The problem for Portman, say his questioners, comes down to a single issue, namely his same-sex marriage flip-flop. He came out in support of gay marriage after one of his sons came out as gay.
Despite Portman’s work since then to repair relations with key constituencies, his support for gay marriage still has some smarting in conservative quarters.
“I think that what Rob is facing is there are groups out there that applaud him for his work as it relates to the Second Amendment, the IRS scandal and so on and so forth, but lingering still is his decision to change his position on marriage,” said Michael Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, who helped convene a meeting with anti-abortion leaders and Portman in late April. “It’s one that I don’t believe will go away anytime soon just because of the fact that it’s such a strong and religiously held belief by so many Ohioans who are people of faith.”
Evangelical conservatives and some Right-to-Life leaders say they still struggle with what they took as a promise — that Portman ran for Senate opposing gay marriage — that is broken.
A different group of conservatives, from the Tea Party movement, are generally more concerned about economic and size-of-government issues than are evangelicals, and Portman has forged working relationships with their leaders. But these groups are not mutually exclusive. In a yet-to-be-published survey, political scientist Ronald Rapoport from the College of William and Mary said he found that 42 percent of people who identify with the Tea Party, a large minority, oppose any legal recognition for gay marriage.
These core groups — the anti-abortion movement and the Tea Party — share enough values that some have met recently to discuss common interests. It was at one such meeting, two weeks ago at the Embassy Suites in Independence, where the Portman matter came up.
Tom Zawistowski, a Kent businessman and executive director of the Portage County Tea Party, helped organize the meeting and said Portman wasn’t the only politician discussed, nor was gay marriage the only issue. But there was no avoiding it, either.
“For the religious right, this is a fundamental issue,” said Zawistowski, who is also president of an umbrella group called We the People Convention. “I’ve talked to Rob, I’ve talked to his staff. I think there’s a way to handle this that he hasn’t done yet, that he hasn’t paid attention to and he needs to, because they’re serious.”
How serious depends on the individual, but in interviews, social conservatives at the local, state and national levels said that Portman’s new position cannot be viewed as good policy-wise or for his political future. They said his stands for gun rights and against abortion play in his favor but don’t change the equation fully.
“I can’t tell the future on this, but I don’t see how it could be just a blip,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a Virginia-based group that believes conservative values are fundamental to America’s survival. “And I guess one way to look at it would be if a Democratic senator ran promising the gay rights movement that he would be in favor of same-sex marriage and then got into office and reversed on that. Would the gay-rights movement say to him, ‘Oh, that’s OK because we notice you’ve also been voting pro-choice and against gun rights?’”
Molly Smith, executive director of Cleveland Right to Life, drew an analogy between abortion and Portman’s rationale for changing his view of gay marriage.
“If his daughter was to come home and say she had just had an abortion, would there be the same change on that?” asked Smith, who was at the meeting in Independence. “We’re hoping to work with him, but we cannot possibly work with him if he does not change his view on this.”
Portman has answered the abortion question repeatedly with a “no.” Abortion, he says, is a core issue for him.
Orchestrated the news
Publicly unflappable, Portman has a reputation in Washington as a policy wonk, nurtured by stints in President George W. Bush’s White House as trade ambassador and budget director. He is equally comfortable spouting the intricacies of the tax code on CNBC’s Squawk Box (and once did a chicken imitation when asked whether a chicken or egg came first) and chatting on Fox News about politics. As a vice chairman for finance of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he is raising money for Republican candidates running in 2014.
There is a strategy to his methods, although Portman, who has advised presidential and vice presidential candidates on debate strategy, holds his cards closely. To announce his gay-marriage decision in March, he placed carefully timed phone calls to key supporters, granted exclusive interviews with a handful of Ohio newspapers and CNN — with pre-timed public release — and arranged for a guest column to appear in the Columbus Dispatch, explaining himself.
When the news broke — on his schedule, as planned — he was already on his way to the Smoky Mountains with his sons, canoeing and out of reach as calls started bombarding his office.
Based on conversations with people who know him, it appears that this campaign — to manage the message and get through the rough patch — is continuing. He is tapping a well of goodwill, holding one-on-one and group meetings, and staying in the limelight on other hot-button issues important to conservatives.
“I think he is concerned about making sure that he continues to appear that way,” said George Brunemann, a leader of the Southwest Cincinnati Tea Party. “Maybe he is trying to stay a little more conservative in what happens now, but I suspect not.”
Portman’s communications director, Jeffrey Sadosky, acknowledges the concerted outreach effort.
“Ongoing conversations with constituent groups in Ohio is a key part of representing the state in the Senate, but given the fact that well-meaning people of faith come down on both sides of this issue, we were cognizant of the need for effective outreach to constituent groups, leaders, and supporters surrounding a change of heart that came from a very personal family matter,” Sadosky said.
Except for the gay-marriage issue, Portman most definitely has not turned liberal. He voted in April against an amendment to expand gun-buyer background checks, which he says would have done nothing to prevent the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., that prompted the failed legislation. Rather, he said, it would have made criminals out of law-abiding citizens who, for example, might get in trouble if they transferred a firearm to a second cousin without running a background check.
Gun-control advocates including Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-headed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said Portman’s explanation parroted the National Rifle Association’s talking points. Democratic National Committee press secretary Mike Czin said Portman was “catering to the far right of his party.”
Portman, however, has long been a Second Amendment backer, just as he has voted for lower taxes, more foreign trade, limits on the EPA’s power to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, caps on medical malpractice lawsuits and other mainstream Republican measures.
Interest group ratings often portray him as on the moderate side of his party, but those ratings generally come from Portman’s votes on bills that are less about political litmus tests and more about government operations and policies that hardly engage average voters. On the IRS and Tea Party flap, “he’s been with us on this one since the very beginning,” said Brunemann.
That’s why the gay marriage issue is so difficult for some.
Portman’s advisers say the senator’s recent high-profile stances and meetings across Ohio are not a sign that he is on a political penance tour. They also say his standing among conservatives is not his sole focus, noting that he has been trying to broker a deal that would get Richard Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general, confirmed as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Many conservatives just want Cordray to pack up and leave — and take his agency’s broad powers over consumer credit and loans with him.
Democrats, however, are skeptical of Portman’s intentions, saying his proposal for the bureau’s oversight still could do what Republicans have already tried and failed at: water down Cordray’s authority. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said, “I want to find a path forward on Rich’s confirmation, but I will not support any efforts aimed at weakening the bureau’s ability to protect American consumers.”
How he would play in the primaries
How this plays out may depend on how visible and important gay marriage remains. In 2004, Ohio voters passed a ballot initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and social conservatives such as Bauer and Phil Burress, the principal activist behind that campaign, maintain that Ohioans have not changed their minds in substantial numbers.
About 35 percent of Republican voters identify themselves as evangelicals — and for them, “this is a non-negotiable issue,” said Burress, who heads the Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values.
“This is a policy with the pro-family movement, not just us,” Burress said. “There’s two non-negotiable issues: abortion and marriage, or the ‘homosexual agenda.’ And if you’re wrong on either one of those, will campaign against you and we will defeat you.”
A Quinnipiac University poll in April found that Ohio voters favor gay marriage by a slim margin, but the poll also showed that Portman’s new position cost him some Republican support. Bauer cautioned that polls can be poor indicators, noting that polls in North Carolina last year gave questionable odds to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions there — shortly before the amendment passed by about 61 percent.
Despite Portman’s current work, the U.S. Supreme Court could keep the issue alive when it rules this month on California’s gay-marriage ban, passed by voters but overturned by an appeals court. The high court will also rule on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to gay spouses.
Portman has said he does not intend to get involved in any action that may follow. Yet if the court ruling prompts congressional Republicans to push for new legislation, his position — even if it is inaction — is sure to be noted.
Gay-rights groups in Ohio, meantime, are discussing putting a pro-gay marriage initiative on the state ballot in 2014 or 2016, hoping to overturn the 2004 measure. That, too, would be sure to draw attention to Portman and his differences with the party base.
The 57-year-old Portman is not up for reelection until 2016. Before then, candidates will stake out positions for that year’s presidential primaries, and Portman’s appearance in states such as as New Hampshire already draw speculation that he might stage such a run. His office says he will be in New Hampshire on June 14 only because of a Dartmouth College class reunion and a fundraising event for a fellow Republican, New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
His position on gay marriage could fade in Ohio well before 2016, or fall into the margins because of the other issues. While Burress says Portman’s “career is over” in 2016, a credible candidate must emerge who could win not only the GOP primary but also the general election. Rapoport, of the College of William and Mary, said that “even though these people don’t forgive Portman, when you get Portman into an election against a pro-gay-rights, liberal Democrat, I think they are going to vote for Portman.”
John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a student of religion and politics, agrees, saying voters know Portman in Ohio, where it is easier for him to reestablish trust.
“But if he plays on a national stage, if he runs for president, these issues will be harder,” said Green, who also serves as a senior research adviser at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “He’ll be in a variety of states where he is not as well known, places like Iowa and South Carolina and Florida, and there will be a whole different dynamic in presidential caucuses and primaries than you would find in a state primary in Ohio.”
Until then, Portman will hold more meetings like the one he had on April 30 with Ohio Right to Life leaders and donors in Columbus. Portman explained himself there and, as elsewhere, talked about his love of family and desire for all his children to know marital happiness if they so choose. He also reaffirmed his anti-abortion stance.
Asked what the attendees’ overall impression was at the end, Gonidakis said, “I think we were very blessed to hear Rob Portman’s advocacy on life, and I believe everyone in the room disagreed with his position on marriage.”