The mid-July rumor that Mitt Romney might pick former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as his running mate was a fun Matt Drudge scoop for those in the country who live off political-campaign gossip. It was candy for junkies looking for a pre-convention news high, this one a natural coming after Ann Romney's offering that the former governor of Massachusetts might be eyeing a woman to fill the slot.
A woman is a good idea. Or a Marco Rubio. A Bobby Jindal. That's the unsolicited advice one political veteran offered while discussing Mitt Romney's potential vice-presidential pick. Most importantly, he said, "you've got to go to the future." Oddly, that's what the Condi rumors reflected, despite the fact that she had already been President George W. Bush's secretary of state.
But the insistence that Romney needs to make up for something he lacks, namely star appeal and a forward-looking vision, misses a central point about him: He's already all about winning the future, to borrow a phrase. And he knows it. And -- if a recent speech is any indication -- he's ready to let you know it.
You can take a look at his successful business decisions, his "turnaround" of the scandal-crippled Olympics, or his time in Massachusetts. Or you can talk to a cab driver from Nigeria, one who's been a U.S. citizen for 16 years, having come here after living in Germany. He's always voted Republican, but he's had misgivings about Romney and this whole "repeal Obamacare" business. "You're just going to tear it down and walk away?" he'd wondered. On his cab radio, he heard about the "repeal" but nothing else. He was a bit perplexed, given that Romney seems to know a thing or two about health care, and has more experience with it than the average pol -- something that, oddly, tends to be brought up by his detractors more than his advocates.
All of the seniors-will-lose-out scare tactics from the Left had been getting to him, the cabbie told me while we sat in D.C. traffic. And then Romney spoke to the NAACP. "For the first time since coming here, I heard what I've been waiting to hear from a presidential candidate," he said.
With that speech, Romney began to alleviate the health care security concerns of the taxi driver and his wife of 40 years. After Romney was booed (the most-reported fact about the event, of course) at the NAACP convention for saying the same thing that he says to more receptive audiences -- that he will repeal Obamacare -- he went off-script. He started talking a little about what he would do, and showed why we absolutely need him to do it.
"If our priority is jobs," Romney said -- emphasizing "and that's my priority" -- "that's something I'd change, and I'd replace it with something that provides people with something they need in health care, which is lower cost, good quality, capacity to deal with people who have pre-existing conditions ... and I'll also work to reform and save Medicare and Social Security."
Romney also issued a challenge to embrace school choice as a civil-rights issue. One of the more indefensible positions of the current president has been his stubborn refusal to be an advocate for some of the poorest children in Washington, D.C., plagued by dismal, dangerous schools. Romney quoted Frederick Douglass as he talked about the intolerable inequality that persists in educational opportunity: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." That's a statement for our times, a soul-reviving one for a country and culture.
It was one of a few quotes: "Every good cause on this earth," Romney said, "relies in the end on a plan bigger than ours. 'Without dependence on God,' as Dr. King said, 'our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night.' Unless his spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G.K. Chesterton called 'cures that don't cure, blessings that don't bless, and solutions that don't solve.'" There's something of the conservative proposition for this election year: that government isn't our only hope or our sole agent of transformational change.
Romney may just get to work on rebuilding something we've always valued: freedom. Freedom to believe as we choose, even outside our places of worship. To dream of upward mobility. To believe in creativity and American Exceptionalism at a time when our government is insisting that women's fertility is a disease.
Mitt Romney doesn't need a vice-presidential gimmick. He just needs to talk. That NAACP speech was a model and a turning point. "Take a look," he said at his unleashing. If he keeps talking like that, whole new audiences might do just that.