Portman, an Ohio Republican, knew how Washington worked — or should be working — to address national challenges, and was increasingly exasperated that it wasn’t doing so.
Two years later, there is a hint of ruefulness in Portman’s description of that time, in which he acknowledged that he was surprised by the productivity of Congress during his final months.
“I was feeling the urge to be home more, and I was getting more frustrated with the inability to get things done,” Portman said of his decision to leave in an interview with Yahoo News. “Now, having said that, we did get a lot done in the last few years. I’ve acknowledged that. But when I made my decision ... it was less likely that those things would’ve happened.”
Indeed, in 2021 Portman was a part of bipartisan negotiations over a huge infrastructure bill that poured more than $1 trillion into roads, ports and the American energy grid.
And then in 2022, he was again in the middle of a group of Republican and Democratic senators who worked together on changes to the Electoral Count Act, which made it more difficult to overturn election results. He also worked to pass a law recognizing same-sex marriages, which included provisions to address religious liberty concerns from conservatives.
Portman also worked with Democrats last year to provide $52 billion for the domestic semiconductor industry, an essential step in keeping the U.S. competitive with China.
The infrastructure bill — criticized by some Republicans as largely wasteful spending — was “not really conservative or liberal,” Portman said. “It’s just common sense.
“We’re at a point in our political life where we’ve got to figure out how to get back to the middle. And I don’t mean that even ideologically,” he said. “I mean, just to get things done. And social media pushes us to the extremes, because people are increasingly going down rabbit holes on the right or the left.
“I think there needs to be a reawakening among the great middle [of voters],” Portman said. He said he is close to announcing arrangements with a think tank in D.C. and a college in Ohio to continue working on political and public policy projects.
Portman was not as optimistic as others on the right about the recent fracas that erupted during House leadership elections. He said he was concerned that the House Republicans who opposed eventual Speaker Kevin McCarthy for several days learned the lesson that they could be rewarded in the future by refusing to compromise.
“I think it’s fine for the Freedom Caucus to use leverage towards policy means,” Portman said of the right-wing group of House Republicans that extracted numerous concessions from McCarthy in the leadership fight. “But it’s not fine to hold up the process if you don’t get exactly what you want. That’s not how it works. You’ve got to find common ground.
“To the extent it rewards individuals more — not to find that way forward but to be an outlier — it makes the tough work of democracy harder,” he said.
Portman is an old-school Republican, having been White House trade representative and budget chief in the George W. Bush administration. But he never really distanced himself from Donald Trump in the way some might have expected. He voted against impeaching the then president in 2020 and again in 2021, after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Portman’s second vote against impeachment came a few weeks after he had announced his retirement. This past November, Ohio voters elected Republican J.D. Vance — a staunch Trump ally — to replace Portman in the Senate.
But Portman said he does not think Trump will be the Republican nominee for president in 2024.
“I don’t think he’ll end up running. I think he said he is running because he wants to test the waters and I’m sure he likes the attention,” Portman said. “But I think he will find that it’s not in his interest to run at the end.”
Portman noted that Trump has been falling behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in some public polling. Even if DeSantis lost steam, Portman does not think that would benefit Trump. “And it’ll be somebody else probably after DeSantis,” he said.
“I supported Donald Trump’s policies for the most part, strongly,” Portman said, mentioning the 2017 tax reform bill and the Trump administration’s development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“But by far, the majority of Republicans, when asked should he run again, the numbers are far lower,” he said. “And I know he’s looking at [polling data]. So I think at the end of the day, he is unlikely to run.”
One of Portman’s final negotiations came over the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that strengthened legal protections for same-sex couples. It also contained provisions to bolster religious liberty for conservatives.
Portman led the negotiations on the bill. It was the latest step in an evolution on this issue that began for him in 2011 when his son Will told his father he was gay. In 2013, Portman announced he had changed his position on gay marriage, from opposition to support. He was the first Republican senator to do so.
“I’ve reflected on it a lot,” Portman said. “It’s been a journey for me.”
Portman was a House member in the 1990s and voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which stated that marriage was between a man and a woman, discriminated against same-sex couples and was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. DOMA was repealed by the Respect for Marriage Act that Portman helped pass.
“Having been through this in our own family, this is who people are,” Portman said. “And you have to respect people for who they are.
“And I know that others were not on board and very much against it. And I heard from them, and I still do hear from them. But I think they’re fighting a battle that is in the past,” he said. “And to look to the future, I think it is a matter of protecting religious liberty in the context of allowing people to be who they are.”