SPECULATION about Condoleezza Rice as a possible vice presidential choice for the GOP ticket in 2004 has reached the proverbial tipping point. Everyone's talking about it, from Eleanor Clift on the left, to the good folks at National Review Online on the right, to Andrew Sullivan on the . . . well, wherever he is (the gay-Tory-Catholic center-right?). The Weekly Standard's own William Kristol has mentioned Bush-Rice 2004 as a serious possibility in several recent TV appearances, and lately the blogger realm has analyzed it in its own endlessly self-referential fashion.

It's easy to see why the idea is so appealing. A Bush-Rice ticket in 2004 is the Democrats' worst nightmare. And what Republican isn't tantalized by the possibility of being the first party to elect a woman and a minority vice president (and possibly president)?

Before we get too worked up about this, though, a little perspective is in order. First, it's astonishing that the Rice scenario is being discussed so openly now, given Dick Cheney's unquestioned stature in the Bush White House. This is not 1992, when Dan Quayle was seen as a real political liability for Bush 41 and a none-too-promising contender for 1996. By contrast, there's no evidence that Cheney's presence harms Bush 43's popularity at all. And if by 2004 the war has gone well (no new terrorist attacks, perhaps an America-friendly regime in Baghdad) and the economy is OK, Bush won't even need whatever electoral boost Rice might bring to the ticket.

The main reason for all the speculation, is, of course, Cheney's health. But by all accounts he's doing quite well, thank you. There have been no cardiac scares in over a year; in fact, Cheney has dropped quite a bit of weight recently (20 pounds, his aides say) by exercising regularly and eating smart. He doesn't appear to be worse for wear after his whirlwind tour of the Middle East, and his staff has planned a heavy schedule of fund-raising and campaigning for him in this election year. Most importantly, Cheney hasn't even so much as hinted that he'll quit in 2004. Reports of his demise, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated.

Whatever the Rice speculation says about people's view of Cheney, more instructive is what it signals about Bush. That serious commentators feel comfortable entertaining a bold choice like Rice suggests how much W.'s stature has increased since September 11. A year ago, when many Americans still weren't sure if Bush was ready for prime time, Cheney's reassuring presence seemed essential for the administration's success. But the past six months have convinced a vast majority of Americans that Bush is up to the job. You no longer hear talk in D.C. of Cheney as "prime minister," or as Chief Operating Officer to Bush's CEO.

If Cheney does bow out in 2004 (which I believe is more unlikely than most people seem to think), a Vice President Rice would make a lot of sense for Bush. As with Cheney, Bush trusts and respects her tremendously and gets along well with her personally. What's more, as a potential GOP standard-bearer in 2008, she's much more impressive and substantial than some of the other prospects being touted (such as the increasingly hapless Tom Ridge, for example). But before we carry the Condi craze too far, a lot of other questions need to be answered. Among them:

What is Rice's position on abortion? And does it even matter?

Much of the current debate about Rice's VP chances in 2004 revolves around her position on abortion and whether it will be palatable to conservatives. Rice has been pretty coy on the subject. And who can blame her? She's not a politician (yet)--she's a foreign policy wonk, for heaven's sake. In 1999, after stepping down as provost at Stanford to work for Bush's campaign, she told the San Francisco Chronicle that despite her devout Presbyterian background, she is a "pro-choice evangelical," and that "there's a lot of room in the middle [on abortion]. . . . I don't think Americans think abortion is something you do lightly." Later that year, she told National Review's Jay Nordlinger that she is "mildly pro-choice," and more generally, an "all-over-the-map Republican" whose views are "hard to typecast."

These vague statements have a few conservatives muttering nervously. Which, in turn, already has some socially libertarian bloggers screaming that conservatives are intolerant troglodytes who will let the abortion issue disqualify even someone as appealing as Rice from the national ticket.

This is unfair and ridiculous, of course. What irritates pro-life conservative Republicans isn't the existence of pro-choice Republicans per se. What irritates them are pro-choice Republicans who constantly raise the issue merely to bash their own party and win valentines from the overwhelmingly pro-choice media. (See Dick Riordan, Christie Todd Whitman, Colin Powell.) But no matter how much these pro-choice Republicans whine, the GOP will always be a pro-life party. Why? Because the abortion issue goes to the heart of what both major parties are about. For Democrats, it's a proxy for their entire worldview regarding sexual freedom and unfettered moral autonomy. For Republicans, being pro-life is about remaining the party of Lincoln: Just like slavery, unlimited abortion on demand threatens equality (and thus liberty) by denying a class of human beings their inalienable rights and equal dignity merely because it is convenient to do so.

This doesn't mean there isn't a welcome place in a big-tent GOP for pro-choicers. (Indeed, Republicans are far more tolerant of dissenters on this issue than Democrats are. Remember Bob Casey?) The question, though, is where pro-lifers draw the line. Most don't have a problem accepting a pro-choice Republican as EPA administrator or secretary of state (posts that have little to do with abortion policy), or even as governors of a few swing states. But putting one a heartbeat away from the presidency, and presumably anointing them in advance as the party's nominee in the next election, is different.

So far, Rice hasn't shown herself to be part of the Whitman-Riordan crowd. Some are comparing her to Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's also "mildly pro-choice," but is generally quiet on the issue, and willing to confirm pro-life judicial nominees and vote to ban partial-birth abortion. It's a valid comparison, up to a point. But it's one thing for Hutchinson to be quietly pro-choice as a GOP senator. If she chose to run for president or vice president, conservatives would rightfully ask her to declare whether she would actively seek to appoint pro-life judges, sign a partial-birth ban into law, maintain the ban on federal funding, etc. It is not too much to expect Rice to give straight answers to those questions too, if Bush puts her on the ticket.

Does Rice really improve the GOP's chances with black voters?

Andrew Sullivan writes that Rice could "also help Bush to achieve his dream of winning more than the paltry ten percent of black votes he did in 2000." But this is unlikely, given the almost hopelessly paranoid and monolithic state of black political thought today. Rice probably would be a decisive factor in picking up support among independent voters, particularly white moderates, by helping Bush burnish his "compassionate conservative" credentials. But as a strategy for increasing black votes for the GOP, choosing Rice (like most other Republican strategies for winning more black votes these days) probably won't work, at least in the short term. Still, a Bush-Rice ticket would send an enormous message. She would be the first minority and only the second woman on a major party presidential ticket--and not just any ticket, but (unlike Mondale-Ferraro in 1984) one very likely to win.

Rice's specific views on racial issues like affirmative action are about as murky as her abortion stance. But some of her past statements should thrill conservatives. In her speech at the 2000 GOP convention, Rice said she is a Republican because "I found a party that sees me as an individual, not as part of a group." That's light-years better than anything Colin Powell has said on this subject. Rice continued: "I found a party that puts family first. I found a party that has love of liberty at its core, and I found a party that believes peace begins with strength." Even the Gipper himself would be hard-pressed to top those three sentences as a succinct expression of what the Republican party is all about.

Does it matter that Rice is single?

Sullivan thinks this might become a big issue once people start to think about it (which is to say, once the media covers it obsessively and they're forced to think about it). Not that Rice has any Gary Condit-type problems; apparently her personal life is remarkably tame. But the media will inevitably focus on her single status, which could become a distraction. And the prospect of assuming the modern presidency without the emotional anchor of a loving spouse would be daunting. Most people today are reassured that in the midst of conducting the war on terrorism, Bush has his marvelous wife Laura for support. Rightly or wrongly, they might find Rice's lack of such support a little troubling.

Shouldn't Rice's lack of experience in elective office be a concern?

Possibly, especially if the main intent of putting Rice on the ticket in 2004 is to groom her for the big prize in 2008. Granted, Bush doesn't need a knock-out campaigner alongside him in 2004; he proved in 2000 that he can succeed with a running mate who isn't a born politico. And Rice is certainly affable, articulate, and charming. But it's unclear whether she's inclined to do the kind of annoying, back-slapping politicking required of a national candidate.

Of course, all these questions become moot if Cheney decides to stick around. Nevertheless, Bush-Rice 2004 is undeniably fun to think about.

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.

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