Friday, June 03, 2005

Rough Trade

European Voice has just published the profile I wrote of the new US trade representative, Rob Portman. I wrote it several weeks ago, before the Airbus-Boeing fight escalated...

Bush’s international actor

Rob Portman

Sometimes it seems like nothing much ever changes in transatlantic trade policy. The issues come and go and apparent victories are soon undone by endless appeals and counter-measures. Often, the wins and losses cancel each other out, creating a zero-sum game. The negotiations feed on themselves. The billable hours accumulate.

There’s the Boeing-Airbus fight, which feels like it has been going on since the days of the Wright Brothers and shows no signs of coming in for a landing. The battle over genetically modified foods appears to have no sell-by date. Even the banana war, which tripped up EU-US trade relations through most of the 1990s, is making an unwelcome comeback.

Everyone looks for something that will change the balance of power. In the world of trade negotiations, it can often be a personality that makes the difference. So there is sure to be close scrutiny in Europe of Washington’s new chief trade negotiator, Rob Portman.

A change of personality, apparently, is what is needed at the EU-US negotiating table. EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson did not appear to share his predecessor Pascal Lamy’s affection for the previous USTR, Robert Zoellick. Over the last several years Lamy and Zoellick, who became jogging buddies in their days as G-7 sherpas, were two of a kind: workaholic technocrats who spoke the international language of policy wonkery. But Mandelson is a political animal and born spin-control artist. One of his conversations with the prickly Zoellick ended infamously in a phone receiver being slammed down.

The animosity between Mandelson and Zoellick may have been “blown out of proportion”, in the words of one Brussels lobbyist who argues that “trade policy is driven more by issues than by personalities”. But it certainly won’t hurt that Portman, as a fellow politico, is likely be a better counterpart to Mandy. Portman is by no means slick, but his resume includes a number of critical tools for the job: experience with international trade law, election to political office, a penchant for spin, and close relations with the White House.

More important than his personality or political background may be geography. Until his confirmation as US trade representative at the end of April, Portman was a congressman from Ohio – yes, the state that brought you the second term of George W. Bush. More specifically, he is a native of and represented Cincinnati, a city that is home to Chiquita, the major complainant in the banana case against the EU, as well as to consumer-products multinational Procter & Gamble. Throw in the fact that a factory in his district also produces General Electric aircraft engines, and you’ve got a man who has been more or less at the nexus of transatlantic trade relations over the last 15 years.

Still, don’t expect him to be a wind-up defender of local interests. Portman comes from the traditional pro-business, pro-free-trade wing of the Republican party, and has long argued against protectionist policies. But as a politician he will be acutely aware of the constituent-based, protectionist sentiments of his former colleagues in Congress. Like many European politicians, they worry about outsourcing of jobs and cheap importing of goods and services. They will continue to make life hard for transatlantic trade negotiators.

Reviews from this side of the Atlantic have been good, but it is still early days. Most promising was an appearance with Mandelson at an OECD meeting in Paris in mid-May, at which the two were all smiles. They also pledged to work together to breathe new life into stalled WTO negotiations. “He’s a good choice - an impressive guy and very close to Bush,” says an executive with one of the biggest European industrial companies. “He is a serious appointment and will be good for trade - especially in the Congress, in my opinion.” His nomination as USTR was also widely hailed in the US. where colleagues in Congress from both parties saluted his negotiating skills.

Portman had a stellar early career, working just after earning his law degree for the blue-chip Washington, D.C. firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, where he specialized in international trade. At the age of just 34, he went to work as a White House counsel in the first Bush administration. He eventually served in the key post of director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, making him the president’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

After Bush père lost his bid for a second term, Portman returned home to Ohio. He won his Congressional seat in a special election in 1993, his victory an early tremor before the Republican landslide in 1994. In that election, held halfway through Bill Clinton’s storm-tossed first term, Americans rebelled against the White House and sent a record number of conservative Republicans to Washington.

These new members of Congress owed their success in large part to the House Republican leader at the time, Newt Gingrich. A kind of GOP messiah, Gingrich crafted a national strategy behind which Republican candidates could march in lockstep: the ‘Contract With America’, which promised lower taxes and an end to ‘big government’. That huge influx of new GOP legislators included a disturbing number of hillbilly drones, retired sports stars, blow-dried Jesus freaks and other assorted pod-people – many of whom continue to serve in the institution (and are, in fact, now in key leadership positions).

But Portman quickly distinguished himself as bright light in a class full of dim bulbs, and his talents were rewarded. He won a coveted seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where all US tax legislation originates and where most key trade policies are set. (He also served on the panel’s trade subcommittee, a post that brought him to Europe on occasion, so he’s far from unknown in Brussels.)

Portman was briefly the subject of rumours that he would be chosen to replace Vice-President Dick Cheney as Bush’s running mate in the 2004 campaign. But this no doubt was mainly due to the fact that the Congressman had already carved out a successful career playing a vice-president in mock debates. In 2000, Portman helped Bush prepare for his debate performances by portraying Al Gore; the then-congressman also stood in for Democratic vice-presidential candidates Joe Lieberman in 2000 and John Edwards in 2004 Republican debate practice sessions.

More importantly, he provided key help in the campaigns themselves, and last year ran Bush’s crucial Ohio effort. This is the kind of service which does not go unrewarded. It’s safe to assume that Portman will have the president’s ear on trade policy and just about anything else.

Portman, who is married and has three children, is also a published author, but his first and only book does not deal with the worlds of politics and policy – or even what it was like to be Al Gore. Last year he co-wrote a book on the Shakers, an obscure 19th-century religious sect that made its home in Ohio. The Shakers were known for advocating religious tolerance, crafting simple yet beautiful wooden furniture, and shunning procreation. Not surprisingly, they didn’t last long (the furniture they made, however, is still highly prized). “I’ve been fascinated by the Shakers since I was a boy,” Portman said after writing the book, which is entitled Wisdom’s Paradise: The Forgotten Shakers of Union Village. “It’s a story I thought needed to be told.”

Will much change under Portman, other than personality at the negotiating table? It isn’t likely to. “If you look at the people Portman had with him in Paris last week, it was the same people who were there with Zoellick,” says one Brussels trade-policy expert. “The people they’re dealing with in DG Trade are the same. The issues stay the same.”

So maybe it will be business as usual. Perhaps when things really get boring Portman can start imitating Bob Zoellick.

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