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Rob Portman’s Exit Interview – WSJ

Sen. Rob Portman

of Ohio isn’t running for re-election in 2022. This is not good. He is a rightly respected figure. He tries to advance serious legislation. He doesn’t spend all his time talking on television.

He cheerily returned my call Wednesday from “the beautiful Russell Office Building.” He thinks his office was once that of

Sen. Harry Truman

; his previous office had been occupied by Truman’s frequent antagonist, Ohio’s

Sen. Robert Taft.

Mr. Portman finds this satisfying. In 11 years in the Senate, he has been known for a bipartisan approach.

Before being elected to the Senate in 2010 (by 18 points) and 2016 (by 21), Mr. Portman had six terms in the House and stints as director of the Office of Management and Budget and U.S. trade representative, both under President

George W. Bush.

He’s dexterously made his way through the party’s Trumpian minefields. Over the years when national events have turned especially murky, I’ve asked his read on things, and what’s always struck me is his stubborn sense of reality: He doesn’t let his wishes get in the way of what he sees. In the geography of the Republican Party he’d be placed with figures like

Mitch Daniels

—the We Actually Know Things Caucus.

When he made his announcement Monday, he said the Senate is too polarized, common ground has been lost. He has been moved by the response: “It’s a crazy world right now, and this decision I made I thought normal, but the response was abnormal. I think people are really yearning for some renewed bipartisanship and cooperation.” Potential candidates for his seat have called to say they want to be like him. “It’s been crazy,” he laughs, “like dying a good death.”

He’s 65 and means it when he says he wants more time with his family: “I never expected to be a career politician.” He intends to make progress “on the outside” on issues he cares about—drug addiction, sex trafficking, a commission on mandatory federal spending.

It really is something that we’re living in a time when ambitious people leave the U.S. Senate to get things done.

On his party’s prospects he’s somewhere between bullish and serene. Everybody is talking about the inevitability of breakup, but he doesn’t see it that way. The 2020 election, he argues, showed Republican strength—gains in the state legislatures and the U.S. House. He thinks coming elections can bring out traditional Republicans and summon new ones. “There’s a meshing of the traditional GOP agenda—lower taxes, strong military—with more-populist approaches on, say, immigration, on trade. In the real world you have to have a fair trade system, and it’s not un-Republican to think so.”

An altered tone would help. “This does require leaders who have the ability to communicate these messages without the coarseness and the divisiveness that we have seen over the last four, five years.”

He sees his state as a microcosm of the country. In 2020, “a lot of the pushback in the suburbs was style and personality. The suburban, more educated folks in Ohio, who are independent voters these days—you can win these areas if you’re focused on the right policies, and more welcoming and embracing.”

Donald Trump

did well among minorities: “That was about issues—the economy, small business, lower taxes.”

In spite of the smallness and rage various state GOP committees are displaying now, we agree in this space with Mr. Portman’s sense that in the long term it is issues that count. The potential health and durability of the GOP will be based on an integration of old and still-applicable stands with new and still-urgent ones. But that process won’t proceed easily with Mr. Trump as a dominant force. If he’s on the scene it’s back to the old battle lines, and everyone dug in.

On the upcoming impeachment trial: “I have said I will listen to both sides, and I will. I’m a juror.” But he believes trying a former president probably sets a bad precedent.

I asked about the comment of his former campaign manager

Corry Bliss,

published Tuesday in National Journal, on Portman’s decision not to run: “If you want to spend all your time on Fox and be an a—h—, there’s never been a better time to serve. But if you want to spend your time being thoughtful and getting s— done, there’s never been a worse time to serve.” Mr. Portman roared with laughter. “Did he say that?” He roared again. “Yeah, I won’t comment.”

Here I switch away from Mr. Portman to squeeze in something being overlooked on the coming impeachment debate.

I started the new year talking with an ambassador to the U.S. from a European nation, who spoke of Mr. Trump’s campaign to delegitimize the election. Do Americans understand the damage this does to U.S. allies, the ambassador asked. We look to you for an example of how to do democracy—you’re the oldest in the world! It grieves us to see the beacon of democracy sullied in this way.

Those words rang in my ears five days later as I watched the Capitol besieged.

On “Axios on HBO” Sunday we will hear from President

Volodymyr Zelensky

of Ukraine. He is playing a hard hand. Russia is breathing down his neck, Republicans don’t want to hear about him because they’re embarrassed by the Trump phone call that triggered the first impeachment, and Democrats are embarrassed by

Hunter Biden

and Burisma. Mr. Zelensky seems kind of on his own, sitting on top of one of the world’s flashpoints. China has been sweetly reaching out.


Jonathan Swan

asked the president how he felt as he saw the Capitol stormed. “Shocked,” Mr. Zelensky said. “I could not even imagine something like this was possible in the United States of America. . . . We are used to thinking that the U.S. has ideal democratic institutions where power is passed calmly, without war, without revolutions.” Such things happen elsewhere; they’ve happened in Ukraine. “That it could happen in the United States, no one expected that. . . . After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy in the world.”

For more than a century we have claimed the mantle of world power, basked in the warm glow of our exceptionalism, and put ourselves forward as an example. When you do that you have responsibilities; you owe something in return. What you owe is the kind of admirable behavior that gives the world something to aim for. On 1/6 they saw the storming and the siege and thought: Ah, no stability in that place. We can’t learn how to do it there and replicate it here.

This is a loss to rising democracies and also to us, to our standing and reputation. Senate conviction is the chance to show the world: No, we won’t have this; those who did it will pay the highest penalty.

It matters that all evidence be presented, that everyone sees we can come down like a hammer, ensuring that 1/6 was a regrettable incident, not a coming tendency.

It matters that the world see this. That we see it.

Wonder Land: Public and political condemnation of the Capitol riot is virtually universal, and rightly so. But why does condemnation of the violence committed during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests remain selective, at best. Images: Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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