Monday, March 21, 2005

Condi for President?!

Our new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, lately given to wearing angular, edgy-looking black leather like Neo's squeeze in "The Matrix," is on some kind of a roll. In short order she's met with the leaders of South Korea, Japan and Israel, called on the European Union not to sell arms to China, then turned right around and asked China to help out defusing the situation with North Korea.

You can't make this up.

In the course of transforming the contours of the world to accommodate the new Pax Americana, Madame Matrix has managed to get her name floated, albeit very early, as a possible contender for the Big Chair, a credible Republican nominee to make a quest for the Presidency of the United States.

Well, hell. Not even Oprah did that, and she's got more money than God.

The naysayers, as you might expect, are out in force already. Eleanor Clift, Newsweek columnist, has a long piece in the magazine's current issue, explaining, in thoroughly credible argument, why it'll never happen. Clift's argument comes down essentially to one issue: abortion. Rice can't win the 2008 nomination, Clift says, without abandoning her own pro-choice position and embracing the conservative anti-choice position that has been a bulwark, maybe the bulwark, of the Republican Party for generations.

True enough. "For the GOP's base of social conservatives, cultural issues overwhelm economic concerns," Clift notes. The problem with adopting such a one-dimensional pillar of party identity is that it tends to leave a multitude of blind spots, other issues that are important to the American people as a whole. Sooner or later, a failure to address those other issues leaves a party vulnerable to being seen as out of touch, inattentive and insensitive to circumstances in the here & now.

The presumably rock-ribbed Republicans who first floated Condi's name must have understood that. The question, assuming Clift's calculus is correct, is why they'd put her name out there in the first place if they weren't sending a signal, deliberate or otherwise, suggesting a willingness to begin to think of their own party's future as being dependent on more than one highly emotional issue.

Perhaps Condi was mentioned as a concession to the fact that, at this point, there's no one else out there in the GOP with the emotional firepower, the je ne sais quoi factor necessary to get people fired up. Maybe Condi's name was one of those "trial balloons" you hear about. But whatever their motivation, the GOP namesayers knew it would elicit a reaction, and might even give them some direction on which candidate might be more electable.

And that's exactly what makes Condoleezza Rice such an intriguing speculation: With the exception of the abortion issue, she's highly electable. She's spent years establishing her political bona fides; her previous position, as national security adviser, and her current role as secretary of state would be enough to qualify anyone else -- certainly any other white male of a similar stature -- for a run at the presidency.

What Clift considers the major drawback is not necessarily a problem that can't be overcome. Clift's argument is a perfectly rational one politically speaking, and a dovetail with the more conservative wing of the party. And therein lies the problem with that argument. For all the attention paid to the improbability of a Rice presidential scenario, there's no escaping who it was that came up with the idea. This was a Republican notion -- yes, maybe a wild dream, maybe a fanciful what-if broached for the sake of provoking a good cocktail-party discussion.

But somewhere in the Republican party there are those at least willing to entertain the possibility of a break with the reflexes of the past -- reflexes that, if continually obeyed, do little or nothing to broaden the reach and appeal of a party still burdened with the image of white male millionaire elitism. For these Republican stalwarts, the notion that their party should be continually held hostage to this single issue compromises its future and its potential for expansion, regardless of the success of the last two presidential election cycles.

Yes, the more conservative side of the party will oppose the idea (another reflex action). But most Republicans in the broad body politic aren't as adamantine and one-dimensional as those who lead the party. They can't afford to be. Their lives aren't the stuff of political abstraction; they don't have the luxury of that kind of philosophical absolutism. They live down here on the ground, like the rest of us. Their politics, their Republican politics, is grounded in a reality that, whether they like it or not, encounters and incorporates the everyday experience of America, the presence and impact and influence of people who don't look like the Republican leadership. People who look and think like Condoleezza Rice.

The Republicans found out in November who some of those people are; African American voters broke with the usual okey-doke presumptively Democratic paradigm and voted for Bush. In raw vote totals, that bloc of black votes, millions more than in 2000, almost certainly made the difference in Ohio, this election's pivot-point state, for the GOP to prevail. There's no good reason to think that kind of attitude shift has to be a temporary thing; the Republicans who advanced Condi's name must have faith in the symbolic momentum of the administration's minority appointments -- more, and higher profile, than in Clinton's administration.

That kind of momentum for change is squandered, wasted if the party reverts back to its historical reflexes. In their allegiance to abortion as the litmus-test issue for electability under the party banner, the Republicans run the risk of being viewed as a one-issue party, a body that is, rightly or wrongly, defined by the American electorate as blind to anything but establishing and enforcing laws that intrude on their very personal lives.

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