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Senator Rob Portman on Romney Debate Prep

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Ohio’s GOP Senator Rob Portman has been playing President Obama in Mitt Romney’s debate prep. He joined me today to discuss that process and the state of the campaign. The transcript will be posted below later.

HH: Joined now by United States Senator Rob Portman from the great, wonderful state of Ohio. Senator Portman, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

RP: Hugh, thanks for having me on again.

HH: You have spent quite a lot of time with Governor Romney in debate prep over the last couple of weeks. Can you characterize for the audience how that has gone?

RP: You know, it’s going fine. It hasn’t been a lot of time, Hugh, because he’s been out on the campaign trail, including rallies in Ohio. I’ve been with him as much as I’ve been with him in debate prep. But the first debate’s coming up, I think, it’s October 3rd, and he’s working on being sure that he understands what the Democrat point of view is, and I think he’ll have some good responses.

HH: Now there has been a concerted effort over a couple of weeks, first with the London Games story, then with the Cairo embassy statement press conference, and now with the 47% and the Palestinians, to paint him into a corner and to create a narrative that the campaign is over. If that comes up, how would you recommend he respond to that, Senator Portman?

RP: Well, I don’t think it’ll come up. I mean, a week is a lifetime in politics. There’ll be other things to talk about by October 3rd. But look, I think this race is going to come down to the same thing you and I talked about the last time I was on, and that’s the economy, and who’s got the better plan for the future. People are hurting. What President Obama has promised has not happened. He has not been able to get this economy turned around and bring back the jobs that he promised. And Mitt Romney’s got the experience and a record to do it, and he’s got the public policy plans to do it. So that’s what this debate’s going to focus on. I’m sure, you know, President Obama is a great debater. I mean, the guy is considered one of the most articulate politicians ever, not just in today’s political scene, but he’s considered to be a very polished and articulate guy. And so he’s going to make his point strongly, I’m sure. But the bottom line is he really can’t defend where he’s taken the country. And it’s not us who made these commitments. As you know, Hugh, it’s the president. He said unemployment would be 50% lower than it is today. You know, he said he’s going to cut the deficit in half. He said health care costs are going to go down. You know, he said that what he did was going to work to get the economy moving, and it didn’t work.

HH: Now the President’s been going straight at Governor Romney. Let me play for you what he said last week in the middle of the Libyan aftermath of the assassination of our ambassador.

BO: There’s a broader lesson to be learned here. And you know, Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.

HH: What do you make of that, Senator? That’s a pretty direct attack on Governor Romney.

RP: Yes, well, he hasn’t been shy about doing that all along. But you know, it’s ironic, because if he thought that Governor Romney was shooting first and aiming later, then that’s exactly what he did, because as you know, the president himself just said that the statement from the embassy was inappropriate, and they pulled it back, roughly at the same time that Governor Romney was saying it, by the way. So look, I mean, I think he did aim, and he did think, and he didn’t like the statement. Governor Romney realized it wasn’t consistent with the American position traditionally, which has been one of strength and not apologizing. And that’s exactly what the administration was deciding at the same time. So to the extent it was shooting first and aiming later, that’s also what the White House was doing.

HH: President Obama is on Letterman tonight. He’s already taped the appearance. Here is one of the things he said about Governor Romney.

BO: One of the things I’ve learned as president is you represent the entire country. And when I meet Republicans as I’m traveling around the country, you know, they are hard-working family people who care deeply about this country. And my expectation is that if you want to be president, you’ve got to work for everybody, not just for some.

HH: What do you think of that, Senator Portman?

RP: Well, I’ll tell you, that’s where Governor Romney is. I mean, he’s been running a campaign talking about the fact that he wants to do exactly that, bring people together in ways that President Obama promised and has not done. And don’t rely on me. I’m reading this book, The Price Of Politics by Bob Woodward, you know, a guy who’s certainly not considered a Republican journalist. And he talks about the fact that President Obama, time and time again, decided to go the partisan route, decided not to work with Republicans, decided not to reach out to folks and try to bring us together. And we’re paying for that, whether it’s stimulus, or whether it’s Dodd-Frank, or whether it’s the health care law. I mean, everything was done in a very partisan way, and he continues to campaign as well as govern that way, by dividing America. So I think what you hear from Governor Romney is just the opposite, which is we need to bring this country together.

HH: The 47% comment, which is going to define 24, 48, 96 hours of campaign conversation, are you, I don’t know if you saw Governor Romney on with Neil Cavuto, very strong, forceful reply to questions from Neil about that, but what did you make of that video surfacing when it surfaced, and the Governor’s response to it?

RP: Well, it sounds like the Democrats have been holding it for a while. I think it’s about a month old, and it came from a private fundraiser. But I think what Governor Romney did was to point out some of the realities of the Obama economy. You know, we’ve gone from 32 million folks to 46 million folks on food stamps. It is true, I believe, that about 47% of Americans do not pay federal income tax. They do pay other taxes. And we are increasingly, because of our weak economy and because of some of the changes that President Obama put in place to expand federal programs, we are increasingly a country where people are more dependent on government. And that’s not what anybody wants. You know, the folks who are on food stamps would rather have a job that pays them enough that they don’t need food stamps. The folks who are depending on unemployment insurance, you know, would prefer to have a good job, or they wouldn’t have to be in that position. But the reality is the country has moved that direction.

HH: Now Senator Portman, all day long, whether you’ve listened to, say, Rush Limbaugh, or read at National Review Michael Walsh, or this program, or the all-stars on Fox News, conservative center-right commentators are saying to the Governor take this opportunity to go straight at the president, and to argue the opportunity society. Don’t back away from your comments at the fundraiser. Make this about beating President Obama, and stopping President Obama’s transformation of the country. They want, in other words, a much more aggressive, pointed response to these things. You’re in a position probably better than anyone except maybe Stuart Stevens and Matt Rhodes to make that case to the Governor, because you’re doing the debate prep with him. Do you think that’s good advice? And do you think we’ll be seeing that in the context of the debates?

RP: Well, I think you’re already seeing it, Hugh. I mean, I think the fact that, I didn’t see what he said on Neil Cavuto, but the fact that the statements that he’s made since then are consistent with this notion that there is a better future ahead for these folks, there is an opportunity for us to get America on its feet, to bring back the middle class jobs that President Obama talks about all the time. But it’s not going to be through more government spending. It’s going to be through getting the private sector back engaged, getting more investment, and all the policies he’s laid out. When you think about it, he’s got seven proposals that he keeps laying out. It’s energy, which is going to result in millions of new jobs, it’s tax reform, seven million new jobs. It’s taking our health care costs down through letting private market forces work, it’s dealing with education and training in a way that puts the student first. And all the stuff is related to the same thing, which is getting America back to what’s made us the strongest economy on the face of the Earth, the envy of the world. And that’s really what this election is about. As I said at the outset, I think it’s going to be back and forth on a lot of these smaller issues, but ultimately, it’s the American people saying not just am I better off than I was four years ago, the answer is no, because as you know, gas prices are up, take home pay is down. But it is where am I going to be four years from now? And where’s the country going to be four years from now? And if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, and expect a different result, you know, shame on us, because we tried that. And I think that’s going to be the core issue. So I believe he is going head-on into this issue already. He’s saying to go from 32 million to 46 million folks on food stamps should not be the measure of success. It should be how many folks we get off food stamps and get onto payrolls.

HH: Senator, there’s, the President’s also got a record. He loves long answers, takes very few questions, and he does not respect time limits. What’s your advice to Governor Romney about the debate setting when in fact the President blows through time limits and does not answer questions?

RP: Yeah, we’ll see. I mean, look, President Obama’s a good debater. I’ve gone back and looked at his debates with Hillary Clinton, and particularly as he got closer to the end of that primary, he knew what he was doing and he was very effective. So he can shorten his answers and answer the questions when pressed. But you know, he’s also very good at not answering the question he doesn’t want to answer, which is a debating technique. So I think some folks underestimate the President in terms of his ability not just to construct a short answer that answers the question he wants to answer, but just the fact that he’s an articulate person who has a strong belief about what government ought to do. If you look at his comments, whether it’s saying that the private sector folks didn’t build it, it really is because of government, or whether he continues to articulate this policy that he’s been pushing to tax the economy more, particularly small business people because somehow, they don’t pay enough taxes, even though as you and I know, they pay more than ever in terms of the progressivity of the code. And that’s just what he’s going to be passionate about. So I think he’ll do, he’ll do well, but I think his point of view is not the point of view that most Americans hold, and that’s what’s going to come out in these debates, is there’s a philosophical difference here. And most Americans believe that America’s best days will be ahead of us only if we get back to what’s made us a strong economy. And that’s not the government. That’s the private sector, and it’s people. And that’s going to be the core issue.

HH: Senator Rob Portman, thanks for spending time with us today. Look forward to talking to you again as the campaign unfolds.

End of interview.

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