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By W. James Antle III
If Internet columnists and "bloggers" choose the Republican candidate for vice-president, it will be Condoleezza Rice by a landslide in 2004. She's surpassed the star power of such Bush administration luminaries as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, exceeded only by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the president himself.
Rice is the first black woman to serve as national security advisor and her performance has been stellar. Based on her background, this achievement is unsurprising. She grew up in Birmingham under the regime of segregation. One of her childhood friends was killed in the 1963 church bombing that was one of the events that turned the tide against Jim Crow and in favor of the civil rights movement. This did not stop her from entering the University of Denver at the age of 15. Initially intending to be a concert pianist, Rice was eventually drawn to foreign policy, with a concentration in Soviet affairs. She was offered a professorship at Stanford before she even completed her PhD. and by the time she was 35, the first President Bush was telling Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that Rice told him everything he knew about the USSR.
This combination of inspiring biography, personal achievement and conservative realism in her foreign policy views makes Rice an attractive candidate to Republicans who wish to forge a more inclusive party without abandoning principle. Yet on one question, conservatives are questioning whether a Bush-Rice ticket would abandon a crucial principle.
On that vexing topic of abortion, Rice has reportedly described herself as "mildly pro-choice" on one occasion and "reluctantly pro-choice" on another. It is worth noting that she has not used her pro-choice views to enhance her media celebrity status or invoke her "more tolerant than thou position" vis-à-vis pro-life Republicans, as Richard Riordan, Arlen Specter and Christine Todd Whitman are wont to do - although it is equally worth noting that Colin Powell's views on the subject started out as mild as Rice's and became more strident over time as their political mileage became more apparent. Moreover, the speculation over Rice being on a national ticket has generated some surprisingly fresh thoughts on the whole abortion debate - I especially recommend Patrick Ruffini's rant on the subject.
But we now have what might amount to a test case as to how the selection of a pro-choice running mate by a pro-life Republican incumbent would play among pro-life voters. Judging from the initial reaction Ohio Gov. Bob Taft has faced, it is the sort of thing that makes pro-life Republicans - who are the voters within the GOP with the most intense feelings about abortion and who actually base their votes on the issue - very angry indeed.
Gov. Taft picked Columbus Councilwoman Jennette Bradley as his running mate now that current Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor is running for the Ohio Supreme Court. Bradley, like Rice, is an African-American woman and a Republican. She is also pro-choice. This selection has already cost Taft the Ohio Right to Life Society's endorsement and has brought protests from conservative activists. There were strong, though ultimately unsuccessful, movements to revoke his invitation to two county GOP fundraising dinners in February. In Warren County, some in attendance at a Lincoln Day walked out when the governor rose to speak. The Columbus Dispatch reports that many social conservatives are threatening to boycott the election entirely, including the executive director of the state Christian Coalition. One GOP state legislator is even urging Republicans to vote for Taft's liberal Democratic opponent.
Of course, there are some important distinctions that need to be made. George W. Bush is more popular among GOP conservatives than anyone since Ronald Reagan. Taft's conservative credentials have been questioned before and he likely would have been opposed by many grassroots conservatives in 1998 if Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett hadn't persuaded then state Treasurer Ken Blackwell to drop his nascent gubernatorial bid and run for secretary of state instead. Second, Rice is a woman whose views on the issues she has a record on are certifiably conservative. Her views on abortion, to the extent that we know them, seem moderate and are not central to her political persona. Bradley on the other hand has sparred with GOP social conservatives for years. There's nothing "mild" about her pro-choice position and she had already angered many of the groups opposed to her when she promoted domestic partnership legislation on the Columbus city council.
But pro-lifers aren't simply being incorrigible by raising the question. The reality is that Democrats typically impose pro-choice litmus tests on their national tickets and judicial appointees. Republicans appoint people to the federal bench on the both sides of the abortion issue to a far greater degree than Democrats, even though they have not put a pro-choice candidate on their presidential ticket since Gerald Ford in 1976. If pro-lifers are serious about abortion, they need to encourage the Republicans to emulate the Democrats' single-mindedness about the issue.
It is true that many moderately pro-choice Republicans, such as Sen. George Allen from Virginia and Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas, support every restriction on abortion that could conceivably be legislated in the near future. The best any pro-life officeholder is going to be able to do on abortion in the present political climate is to push parental consent laws, late-term abortion bans and other modest restrictions that many of these moderate pro-choicers themselves support. Defending the prospect of Colin Powell occupying either the top or bottom spot on a GOP national ticket, Bill Bennett argued several years ago that a pro-choice Republican (defined as one who favored upholding Roe v. Wade) who would work to change minds about abortion and support politically possible restrictions would do more good on the issue than a dogmatic pro-lifer who annually demands a human life amendment with no chance of passage.
If a President Rice succeeds President Bush, it is certainly possible that there will be no noticeable change in what abortion-related legislation is signed or vetoed. Consider that Tom Ridge - who was openly combative toward pro-lifers while in Congress - preserved all the restrictions on abortion imposed in Pennsylvania when Bob Casey was governor. There was also little difference on Virginia abortion policy between moderately pro-choice George Allen when he was governor and his pro-life successor Jim Gilmore (Democrat and self-described moderate pro-choicer Mark Warner has thus far been another story). Yet it may well make a difference on judicial appointments. Pro-lifers also know that even though moderate pro-choicers support popular abortion restrictions upon final passage, it is pro-life officeholders that typically initiate them and demonstrate leadership in winning their enactment.
The whole discussion may well be superfluous. Unlike Dan Quayle in the first Bush administration, Dick Cheney is not a liability to the GOP ticket. Even if increased confidence in President Bush's leadership has made Cheney's gravitas less necessary, he remains a needed anchor within the administration. Nor is there any real evidence that his health is either impacting his job or making him less likely to run in 2004. And while I am a Condi Rice fan, I am an even bigger Cheney fan. I don't just prefer Cheney to the other vice-presidential prospects - I prefer him over President Bush.
So what makes the idea of Condi Rice running for vice-president or president even worth talking about? The prospect forces both pro-life and pro-choice Republicans to confront abortion in an entirely new context. If discussing Rice helps bring new thought to the most inflammatory debate in American politics, it might achieve results more lasting than the typical political trial balloon.
W. James Antle III
is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.
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