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Why Rob Portman's Senate retirement announcement matters

In Congress, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman was the kind of politician who developed a reputation for "moderation," despite rarely actually doing anything moderate.
Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speaks during a confirmation hearing for Janet Yellen, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for treasury secretary, in Washington on Jan. 19, 2021.Anna Moneymaker / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

In a bit of a surprise, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio announced this morning that he will retire at the end of next year, ending a lengthy political career. His statement read in part:

"I don't think any Senate office has been more successful in getting things done, but honestly, it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy, and that has contributed to my decision. We live in an increasingly polarized country where members of both parties are being pushed further to the right and further to the left, and that means too few people who are actively looking to find common ground. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but a problem that has gotten worse over the past few decades."

While it's certainly true that Portman, who has a mild temperament, has not been among his party's most reckless members, it's curious to see him complain about the difficulties in "breaking through the partisan gridlock." The examples of the Ohio Republican even trying to be a prominent dealmaker on major issues are quite limited.

What's more, while Portman may have a reputation as a relative moderate, at least by contemporary standards, let's also not forget that the Ohio Republican voted with the Trump White House nearly 90% of the time over the course of the last four years. He also joined with his party throughout the Obama era, linking arms with his partisan allies against the Democratic White House's agenda.

Indeed, Portman is the kind of politician whose reputation rests almost entirely on tone. When Trump illegally extorted a U.S. ally in 2019 as part of a scheme to cheat in an election, the Ohioan was willing to concede Trump's actions were "wrong and inappropriate," before voting to acquit his party's president anyway.

Similarly, in 2016, Portman said he'd extend Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland the courtesy of a one-on-one meeting, shortly before joining his fellow Republicans in imposing an unprecedented blockade against Garland's nomination.

It's the kind of "moderation" in which Portman rarely actually did anything moderate. He voted with Trump even more than Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), but Portman is seen as more responsible because he was "thoughtful" and "contemplative" before consistently siding with his Republican brethren -- making this morning's complaints about "partisan gridlock" rather ironic.

Looking ahead, the fight for the retiring senator's seat may prove to be interesting. On the Democratic side, I don't imagine anyone would be surprised if Rep. Tim Ryan (D) launches a statewide bid, while on the Republican side, Rep. Jim Jordan (R) is another likely contender.

A possible wildcard is former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), whose plans are often unpredictable.

Another angle to watch: if retirement announcements are liberating, will the next two years be constructive ones for Portman, freed from having to worry about his re-election plans? Watch this space.

* Note: This post has been updated with additional details.