After a string of dull speeches laden with glib one-liners aimed at President Obama, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s lit up the Republican convention stage with a speech that was positive, more high-minded and showed a new side of the former Secretary of State. While her emphasis was on foreign policy, she also strayed into her views on domestic issues – sparking speculation that she’s considering a run for office, possibly governor of California or even president in 2016.
It would be a dramatic turn for Rice who has always denied any ambition to run for office. She returned to academic life at Stanford after leaving government. “I really can’t imagine it,” she said in a 2008 interview, and declared, “I never wanted to run for anything—I don’t think I even ran for class anything when I was in school.”
Rice told MSNBC after the speech that she’d go back to being a “happy Stanford faculty member,” but that did not stop the convention from buzzing about a potential Rice run.
After her speech, a former chairman of the California Republican Party, Ron Nehring posted 10 reasons why she should run for governor of California, and concluded:
“If she showed any interest in the post, she would become the instant and overwhelming frontrunner to challenge [California governor Jerry] Brown.”
Rice’s name was briefly floated as a potential running mate for Romney earlier this summer, most analysts dismissed the possibility because Romney had promised to pick a pro-life running mate. The same issue is raised as an obstacle for a potential presidential run by Rice. In the early primary states that have an over-sized role in picking Republican presidential nominees, social conservatives and religious groups have a large say. The evangelical Mike Huckabee and the staunchly conservative Catholic Rick Santorum won the last two Republican Iowa caucuses, for example. Yet in 2008, Rice has described herself as “mildly pro-choice” and has said that while she finds some abortions “cruel,” it’s an area she’d prefer the government stay out of. In 2008, she told the Washington Times that she is “in effect kind of libertarian on this issue,” adding: “I have been concerned about a government role.”
How big an obstacle would that be? Presumably a deal-breaker for many Republican voters and organizers. Or maybe not.
This afternoon, at convention-related event in Tampa billed as a “Celebration of Pro-Life Women Leaders,” anecdotal conversations with pro-life Republican women suggested that Rice’s views on abortion may not necessarily be a litmus test for them—or at least they would be open to Rice explaining her somewhat complicated views on the issue.
“I think she’s an amazing woman and I love her values and morals. She would have been a good vice-presidential pick,” said Carol Mullins, a 42-year-old massage therapist from the Tampa Bay area. “A lot of people think that Republicans are white men. I love that we have a black woman. You can’t play the race card on her.” Mullins describes herself as pro-life and was attending the pro-life event, but said the issue would not be a deal-breaker for her, and was open to Rice’s more libertarian viw. “I see both sides. Sometimes I feel it shouldn’t be a government-controlled thing.”
Connie Detrick, a 70-year-old Junion League volunteer from Tampa active in Republican causes, said she was impressed by Rice. “I though her speech was unbelievable. She was great. We’ve never heard her express herself that way before,” she said. While she didn’t think Rice was interested in running for office, Detrick said the abortion issue would not prevent her from supporting Rice if she ever ran. “I am pro-life but it would not be a deal-breaker at all,” she said.
But others were more troubled by her views on abortion. Kim Pizella, a 41-year-old political fundraiser from Pennsylvania, said she quoted from Rice’s speech on her Facebook page. “I loved her speech. I though it was so inspiring, especially as a mom thinking about how to raise children to believe they can grow up to be anything they want. It was such an inspirational, motivational speech. She said, we’re in trouble as a country, but the point of her speech was, ‘Listen, we’ve been in trouble before and we can do this because it is who we are.’ ”
But Rice’s statements on abortion gave her pause. “It will definitely hurt her,” if she were to run for national office, said Pizella, who described herself as “staunchly pro-life.” Supporting a pro-choice candidate “would be difficult” for her. But, she added, “I would love to hear her explanation. She’d have to explain herself.”
Rice’s speech also gave a fuller sense of where she stands on some domestic issues – but since she is not running for office, she had the luxury of vagueness. On foreign policy, she obliquely acknowledged the public fatigue with foreign entanglements, before launching into an appeal for a more muscular foreign policy in support of freedom movements around the world:
“And I know, too, that there is weariness – a sense that we have carried these burdens long enough. But if we are not prepared to lead again, one of two things will happen – no one will lead and that will foster chaos – or others who do not share our values will fill the vacuum. My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead – and one cannot lead from behind.”
But her speech showed she’s been giving thoughts to issues beyond foreign policy, from North American “energy independence,” to immigration reform. She spoke passionately about education – and said that giving poor families the ability to move children out of underperforming public schools is “the civil rights issue of our day.”
One of her biggest applause lines came on America’s fiscal problems:
“The world knows that when a nation loses control of its finances, it eventually loses control of its destiny,” she said. And, later, “There is no country, no not even a rising China, that can do more harm to us than we can do to ourselves if we fail to accomplish the tasks before us here at home.”
But the real appeal of the speech was her ability to channel a bit of that Obama spirit from 2008 – placing her personal story into the narrative of the “American Dream.” So many of the speakers talked about growing up in small towns and overcoming poverty or parental death to get where they are today. But only Rice was able to speak of being “a little girl growing up in Jim Crow Birmingham, the most segregated big city in America.” Said Rice:
“Her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant – but they make her believe that even though she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter – she can be president of United States and she becomes the Secretary of State. Yes, America has a way of making the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect.”
The crowd went wild – not unlike the way Democratic audiences used to respond to Obama’s well-worn line: “Only in America is my story even possible.”