The Condoleezza Rice mirage is back.
With a banner headline on the Drudge Report Thursday night proclaiming her a leading prospect for the vice presidency, Rice has returned to a familiar role: the irresistible, all-too-perfect fantasy candidate of the Republican Party.
Never mind the fact that there are glaring reasons why the former Secretary of State could be a political fiasco. She’s an abortion rights-supporting former Bush administration official who has never run for public office and whose time in Washington is remembered less than fondly by many.
But as the highest-ranking African American woman ever to serve in public office – and one of few black leaders the Republican Party has – Rice has a demographic allure that has not faded since she left Foggy Bottom. With the GOP working to define its foreign policy platform, Rice is one of the country’s most famous diplomats and an accomplished academic to boot.
In a way, she’s the Republican Party’s answer to Sam Nunn or Evan Bayh: two former conservative Democratic senators, hawkish on national defense, who were mentioned for years as potential national candidates simply because they looked so good on paper. A running joke in Democratic circles over multiple presidential cycles: Those pushing Nunn and Bayh had never heard either man give a speech or try to work a rope line.
“She’s the shining ornament at the top of the Christmas tree that we can always admire but never reach,” said GOP consultant Bruce Haynes, who called Rice a “figure of eternal fascination” for Republicans.
“If you drew up a candidate on the drawing board, it would look a lot like Condoleezza Rice. Except she wouldn’t be pro-choice, which could really depress enthusiasm for the ticket,” Haynes continued. “And she wouldn’t be tied to the Bush administration, which is something that, given the choice, the campaign probably doesn’t want to litigate.”
As it is, the Drudge plug for Rice in 2012 was greeted largely with a collective groan on the part of the Republican operative class.
To most, it looked like an all-too-obvious attempt on the part of Drudge – a known Romney campaign ally – to divert attention from several days’ worth of punishing headlines about Romney’s record at the private equity firm Bain Capital.
One Republican campaign strategist emailed in reaction to the report: “Doesn’t it have to be someone believable to actually distract people and at least pretend it’s not a diversionary tactic?”
Yet Rice’s allure within elite Republican ranks is undeniable. Even as Washington scoffed at Drudge’s reporting, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan waxed effusive in her Wall Street Journal column on what the Stanford professor could bring to a national ticket.
“Consider: A public figure of obvious and nameable accomplishment whose attainments can’t be taken away from her. Washington experience—she wouldn’t be learning on the job. Never run for office but no political novice. An academic, but not ethereal or abstract,” Noonan wrote. “A woman in a year when Republicans aren’t supposed to choose a woman because of what is now called the 2008 experience—so the choice would have a certain boldness.”
For several weeks, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol has pointed to Rice as a counter-intuitive choice for vice president. After Rice spoke at a Romney campaign retreat in Park City, Utah, Kristol penned a column suggesting: “Romney-Rice?”
“Rice wowed the crowd—and seemed to impress Mitt Romney, who was standing beside her—when she spoke in a featured role at a Romney campaign event two weeks ago in Park City,” Kristol wrote. “Rice is qualified, would be a poised (if novice) candidate, and would complement Romney in terms of area of expertise, gender (obviously!), and life experience.”
Kristol wasn’t the only one to gush over Rice’s performance: Romney donors, who paid $50,000 to attend the weekend retreat, described her as the best speaker of the weekend, topping the speech Romney himself gave the night before. Some called it the best address they ever heard delivered, laced with criticism of President Barack Obama’s global leadership.
Asked Friday if he was pleased to see the national media conversation swing suddenly in Rice’s direction, Kristol replied: “Amused.”
“I think Romney’s considering it more seriously than most observers think,” he said.
The Rice craze is not a 2012-only phenomenon – far from it. Back in 2005, former Clinton pollster-turned-conservative pundit Dick Morris authored a book predicting that only Rice could defeat the inevitable Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton.
In the summer of 2008, the Rice-for-vice president chatter picked up when Dan Senor – the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and now a Romney adviser – declared on ABC’s “This Week” that Rice was “actively, actually in recent weeks, campaigning for” the job of vice president.
“Condi Rice is an option,” Senor said at the time.
And she’s likely to be an option – or at least talked about incessantly as an option – for the indefinite future. At 57, Rice is young enough to remain a shiny political object for several cycles to come, regardless of her suitability for a national campaign, or even her own interest in it.
“She is an enormously talented person,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen. “She’s a personality – and she’s not a personality because she’s a crackpot. She’s a personality because she’s been an enormously competent public servant.”
Still, Galen shrugged: “You’d have to find me some numbers that say, ‘This would drive votes,’ and if Romney were to do this it would have a material impact on the outcome of the election.”
As for Romney’s opponents in the Democratic Party, the idea of Rice entering the electoral arena is both puzzling and, for some, appealing.
It’s impossible to know exactly how a vice presidential pick as shocking as Rice would play out, politically. But for Obama’s allies, her liabilities are as obvious as her charms are to the Republican political world.
“It’s clear that with the spotlight shining on damaging new details about Mitt Romney’s record, his campaign desperately tried to change the subject by floating Secretary Rice as a potential vice president,” said Ty Matsdorf, senior strategist for the Democratic research group American Bridge, which has assembled extensive dossiers on GOP vice presidential candidates.
“If this was more than just a stunt to divert attention, and they really are considering Secretary Rice, we would be happy to engage in a discussion about the failed policies of the Bush Administration,” he said.
Ginger Gibson contributed to this report.