Will Mitt Romney pick a pro-choice running mate? With the Drudge Report story Thursday night saying that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a front-runner for the number-two spot on the GOP ticket, it seems that he might.
Although Romney pledged during the Republican primary that he would only pick a running mate who would “be pro-life and pro-traditional marriage,” Rice is neither. She has expressed support for civil unions in the past and has consistently described herself as “mildly pro-choice.” Such squishiness on social issues is not inherently a deal breaker for the Republican base. Dick Cheney, the last Republican vice president, is strongly pro gay rights, and even a conservative rock star like New Jersey governor Chris Christie is a relative moderate on many social issues. But, being even “mildly pro-choice” may be a bridge too far.
Rice’s positions on social issues, though, aren’t the only handicap Romney faces in that area. Ever since starting his first presidential campaign in 2006, the former Massachusetts governor has faced a higher level of scrutiny from conservatives for his record on social issues. Romney, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 as a pro-choice candidate who would be “better than Ted [Kennedy] on gay rights,” has had to backtrack considerably since. He has vowed to be “severely conservative” and spent his presidential primary combating attacks that he was simply “a Massachusetts moderate.” The result has left Romney uniquely vulnerable to criticism from the Republican base.
The result of leaking Rice’s name has been an immediate backlash from social conservatives, paralleling that faced by John McCain four years ago when it leaked he was favoring pro-choice Democrat Joe Lieberman as his running mate. In a statement, Majorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life PAC Susan B. Anthony List, said, “Former Secretary Rice’s position on the sanctity of human life makes her an unqualified candidate for Governor Romney to choose as a running mate.” This was echoed in a more colorful manner by prominent conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who dismissed Drudge’s report as improbable by saying, “I don’t know who is hitting the crack rock tonight in the rumor mill, but bull shiitake mushrooms.”
The reaction from the right has not been entirely negative. Sarah Palin told Fox News that she thought “Rice would be a wonderful vice president.” Palin did qualify this by stating that she “would certainly prefer a presidential and vice presidential candidate who had that respect for all innocent, precious purposeful human life and showed that respect via being a pro-life candidate.” The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee was less concerned about this in Rice’s case, noting “that it’s not the vice president that would legislate abortion, and that would be Congress’s role.”
What matters now though is not what Rice would do with the rather limited powers of the vice presidency but whether her presence on the ticket helps Mitt Romney get to the Oval Office.
Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist and former national communications director for Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign, acknowledges that while Condi Rice is “somewhat of a rock star,” that she, along with “a lot of other Republicans,” might not pass the “purity test” of some GOP activists. He notes that while it is important for Republicans to “expand the tent . . . you have to have the base to win.” And, among this group, Rice’s selection would leave “a lot of people . . . unhappy.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Dannenfelser said her concerns about Romney having a pro-choice running mate are not just ideological but political as well. She stated that “the new norm” in the Republican party is that no “candidate for president or vice president can do what they need to do to bring their base together” if they’re not pro-life.
Leading Iowa conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats echoed this as well, noting “it’s no secret that Governor Romney is having the most trouble with the social conservative/evangelical base.” If Romney selected a pro-choice running mate, it would “only heighten that problem.” He also argued that Romney’s possible selection of Rice differed from George W. Bush adding Cheney to the Republican ticket in 2000, noting that not only was the marriage issue far less significant then but that Bush had sufficient credibility to overcome any doubts from base Republicans on the issue. In contrast, there are still “some questions swirling around Governor Romney over what he’s said in the past and what he’s saying today.”
Gidley is pragmatic about Rice as a vice presidential pick overall. “Personally, I wouldn’t want a pro-choice [vice presidential nominee], but I’d rather have Condi Rice than Joe Biden [as vice president].” But, in an atmosphere where it’s unlikely that all conservatives would adopt the same resigned attitude, it’s doubtful that Romney would risk having Rice has his number two. Although conservatives like Vander Plaats may consider her “a very capable person [who] has served our country extremely well,” she’s just not what Dannenfelser calls “the full package.”