If politics is 'Always be Closing,' Condoleeza Rice earned the Cadillac Eldorado last night. Largely absent from electoral politics since her tenure as Secretary of State, Rice made an electrifying re-entry into the political scene on Wednesday, giving a statesman's speech that married a fully articulated worldview with her accomplished biography.
In fact, the further on she went into her speech - which was given without the aid of a telepromter - the further I wondered if the gathered Republican delegates were sad they'd already cast their votes. Rice's speech began by tying her experience governing through 9/11 to her role in negotiating in the Middle East and Russia as National Security Adviser. She seamlessly married those ideas with her capitalist view with a simple line, borrowed perhaps by the Ron Paul contingency: "We stand for free peoples and free markets. We will defend and support them."
She set the room abuzz when she called the 'crisis in K-12 education a challenge to the fabric of our society,' an eloquent articulation of the GOP's preference for alternatives such as charter schools and vouchers over public school reform, by calling it a failure to minority children on the part of the American government.
"We need to give parents greater choice, particularly poor parents whose kids, very often minorities, are trapped in failing neighborhood schools. This is the civil rights issue of our day."
Considering that she came in a lineup long on rhetorical gimmekery - "you did build that!" and "No more years!" - and conventional straw man arguments, Rice led the crowd to ponder policy that was at times in striking contrast to the stated beliefs of the two men on the GOP ticket.
She was even able to get the red-meat-loving crowd to cheer for the development of alternative energy, weigh the plights of AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe and women trapped in the sex trade, and consider a compassionate immigration policy that sounded a lot like the DREAM Act to these ears.
"We must continue to welcome the world's most ambitious people to be a part of us. In that way, we stay young and optimistic and determined. We need immigration laws that protect our borders, meet our economic needs, and yet show that we are a compassionate nation of immigrants."
She also offered a striking contrast with Ann Romney from the night before, who sought to soften the GOP's image with women via a message that emphasized empathy and love and littered with the words 'mom' and 'wife.'
Instead, Rice gave a diplomat's speech, which positioned her as an emissary for her gender instead of someone along for the ride. And it worked. The New York state delegates I spoke to after the speech said they thought Rice's speech helped Romney - who's polling shows a persistent and serious gender gap - with women listening outside the room, and the Republican brand in general.
And although she has repeatedly denied wanting to seek higher office, her closing coda seemed a willful articulation that she might be reconsidering.
"A little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham. The segregated city of the south where her parents cannot take her to a movie theater or to restaurants, but they have convinced that even if she cannot have it hamburger at Woolworths, she can be the president of the United States if she wanted to be, and she becomes the secretary of state."