Portman Takes On Poverty & War On Drugs With Eye On 2016

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UPDATED: Tuesday May 13, 2014 3:49 PM

In a speech that could be a precursor to a run for the White House in 2016, Senator Rob Portman laid out a specific plan to tackle poverty, while questioning the 40-year "war on drugs" by the federal government.

"Too many in my own party avoid talking about poverty at all and how to address it," said Portman.  "We can't be a great party if we don't lead on this issue."

Portman delivered the speech at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Portman says 47 million Americans are now living in poverty and $15 trillion dollars has been spent since the war on poverty approach was launched.

He said the poverty programs backed by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s have failed and it's time now for "constructive conservatism."

"So many Americans are losing ground and losing hope," said Portman.

Portman spent much of his speech advocating prison reform.  He called on fellow conservatives to support spending for recidivism reduction programs which could reduce the number of those in prison.

Read Portman's entire speech

Portman also suggested the war on drugs has failed to slow down problems related to poverty.

"After more than a trillion dollars spent in the war on drugs and thousands of lives lost, we are starting to understand that arrest, prosecution, and incarceration are not enough," said Portman.

He did not, however, embrace the movement to legalize marijuana, even for medical purposes.

"I am concerned about the message being sent about legalization," said Portman.  "We shouldn't throw in the towel."

Some Ohio anti-poverty advocates say they are skeptical of Portman's commitment.

"Actions speak louder than words," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, Executive Director of Ohio Association of Foodbanks.  "It's going to take investments to ensure that families with children don't work in poverty.  Ohio has a terrible problem, in fact three - Ohio cities Toledo, Cincinnati and Cleveland - rank in the top five for the percentage of children who are poor."

Hamler-Fugitt says Portman's votes to limit eligibility for the federal food stamp program and opposition to raising the minimum wage have made anti-poverty efforts worse.

"We must restore cuts to the food stamps program and absolutely raise the minimum wage," said Hamler-Fugitt.  "You can't meet basic needs on what some families are making."

Portman's remarks on poverty are considered by some strategists as a signal that he's interested in pursuing a White House bid in 2016.

Brian Rothenberg from ProgressOhio, a liberal leaning think tank, says Portman’s ties to the George W Bush presidency will hurt him as 2016 approaches.

“It seems ‘constructive conservatism’ has replaced George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’ which led to some buyer’s remorse,” said Rothenberg.  “But there are indications that Jeb Bush’s wife is uncomfortable with a White House race and given Portman’s ties to the Bush political arm, this may be positioning for 2016.”

Larry Sabato a long time national political analyst from the University of Virginia Center for Politics calls Portman “serious, credible and smart.”

“Colleagues on both sides of the aisle like Portman,” said Sabato.  “He is low-key and willing to listen, if not agree, with others’ strongly held points of view.  Cheap shots and grandstanding press conferences are not in his repertoire.”

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