A return to the Bush years?: Condi’s speech raises foreign policy questions

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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If Tuesday night was thematic (a diverse array of rising star Republicans beating the “you didn’t build that” phrase to death), Wednesday night was less coherent. There were boring speeches (Bob McDonnell) and very good speeches (Paul Ryan.) And rising stars (Susana Martinez) and retreads (Tim Pawlenty).

It seemed disjointed. And it raised as many questions as it answered.

This election is supposed to be about the economy. What is more, the convention has mostly highlighted the future stars of the Republican Party. This is about branding. And yet, the most rousing speech (so far) as been delivered by former Bush Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. This seems odd.

Yes, she’s a rock star. But the decision to give her this prime speaking slot seemed curious to me. As Slate put it, this was sort of like “a speaker in
 search of an argument, as though a production company lined up a star
 actor cast before determining the plot.”)

This also raises questions about Mitt Romney’s foreign policy — something that hasn’t really been the subject of focus (everyone knows this election is about the economy). To be sure, Romney has advanced foreign policy prescriptions consistent with what some would call the hawkish (others would call neocon) policies of George W. Bush. But because foreign policy has taken a back seat to other issues on the campaign trail, it has never been terribly clear (to me, at least) if Romney was simply spouting Republican bromides — or if this were a sincere policy worldview.

By voicing what has become the mainstream Republican positions on foreign policy — but not focusing too much on them — Romney has allowed average Americans to check off the “strong foreign policy” box — without ever thinking he might really send more Americans off to war (after all, we assume, he saw how things went for Bush and wouldn’t make the same mistakes).

Being a bit vague isn’t always a bad thing. Some people tend to hear what they want to hear. But that’s harder to do today. Does Rice’s high-profile speech signal that Romney’s re-election would mean a return to more interventionism? Do voters — now forced to confront the question — want to return to the foreign policy of George W. Bush? (And do Republicans want that to be a question voters ask on Election Day?)

Bush ended his tenure as an unpopular president — largely due to Iraq. From a political perspective, why would Romney want to put someone on stage who reinforces what is perhaps the strongest negative about the last Republican presidency? (Why not also trot out Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and have an “old-timers” game?)

Rice delivered a terrific “standing ovation” speech. And from an optics point of view, her very presence pushes back at the notion that the GOP is a party for old, white men (maybe that answers the Rumsfeld/Cheney question.)  But conventions are like concept albums. They are organic.

She is a symbolic bridge to the past, not the future (unless there’s something we don’t know!).  What is more, she is tainted by the Bush years. And her high-profile presence seems to undermine the the notion that this is a break from the Bush/Obama years.

I keep coming back to this: The speech was awesome — but why did she give it?

Matt K. Lewis