By Niall Stanage - 08/30/12 02:42 AM EDT
TAMPA, Fla. — Condoleezza Rice laid out the foreign policy case for a Mitt Romney presidency at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, stating baldly that the candidate and his running mate, Paul Ryan, “know what to do” on the world stage.
The former secretary of State asserted that the Obama administration was guilty of a dangerous unsteadiness in global affairs.
“One of two things will happen if we don’t lead,” she warned. “No one will lead, and there will be chaos; or someone will fill the vacuum who does not share our values.”
Rice’s speech, which began with her vivid recollection of Sept. 11, 2001, sought to link economic concerns that are the dominant issue in this year’s election with the broader question of America’s standing in the world.
“When the world looks at us today, they see an American government that cannot live within its means,” she lamented. “The world knows that when a nation loses control of its finances, it eventually loses control of its destiny.”
The audience responded with unbridled enthusiasm to much of Rice’s speech, which she delivered without a teleprompter. She was greeted with a minute-long standing ovation when she first took the stage. Her counterattack on the Obama campaign’s assaults on Romney’s business record also hit the mark with the crowd. “We have never been jealous of one another and never envious of each other’s successes,” she said.
In part, the ardent reaction in the hall reflected the enthusiasm for Rice in a party that has long enjoyed her combination of gravitas and charisma. Earlier in the day at a panel discussion, Joshua Bolten, who had served alongside Rice in the Bush White House as chief of staff, told her she was “a celebrity at this convention.”
Despite this enthusiasm, Rice said earlier in the day she would not take a position in a Romney administration if it were offered.
But there were more muted moments. Just after the midpoint of her speech, Rice called for immigration reform. She framed the need for change in terms of national self-interest, saying that regular infusions of new immigrants help the United States “stay young and optimistic and determined.” But she also said that immigration policy should “show that we are a compassionate nation of immigrants.”
The reaction was one of polite, rather than enthusiastic, applause. But it was the exception.
The decision to have Rice give a prime-time address carried both risks and potential rewards for the Romney campaign. On the plus side, a starring role for the first African-American woman to serve as secretary of State seemed a powerful symbolic rebuttal to those who accuse the Republican Party of lacking diversity.
She spoke of her personal history in the last sentences of her speech, recalling how “a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham” and her parents help her believe that “even though she couldn’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, she could be president of the United States if she wanted to be — and she becomes secretary of State.”
She recalled these details with evident emotion, belying her buttoned-down reputation. And they drew the loudest cheers of all, as many members of the crowd were visibly moved.
At the same time, Rice’s presence was a reminder of the Bush administration and its decisions to launch two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, that became deeply unpopular. Rice was a central player in those decisions, as well as in the effort to build support for them among the public.
During the same Wednesday afternoon panel where Bolten refered to her as a “celebrity,” hecklers affiliated with the anti-war Code Pink organization twice interrupted Rice. She referred to the Bush administration explicitly only once during her convention speech, praising the former president for negotiating free-trade agreements.
Rice’s speech also came against an unusual backdrop for a presidential election. President Obama enjoys strong poll ratings on foreign policy, defying the tendency in recent decades for Democratic presidents to be vulnerable on defense and national security.
The president’s standing was bolstered most dramatically by the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month indicated that 54 percent of Americans approved of his performance on foreign policy, a rating some 10 percentage points better than his standing on economic issues.