Some of the guys at Republican headquarters got together the other day to talk about women and next year's congressional elections. How could they make Republicans attractive to women?
One of the dark suits at the table suggested that the president stress the importance of the missile shield. Since women are the principal caretakers of children, surely they could see the value in being able to destroy a terrorist missile aimed at their homes and neighborhoods.
Other suits around the table groaned, remembering Don Regan's famous remark that women don't know beans about throw weights. But I've got an idea for them. The missile shield, the centerpiece of George W.'s national security strategy, is back with us, and both men and women will hear a lot about defense, missiles and strategies, like it or not.
The White House should unleash Condoleezza Rice. She understands not only throw weights, but why the administration has not done a very good job in educating women - and men - about something they're going to have to pay attention to.
"Every story is pretty negative," she told me the other day in a conversation over coffee and cake. "The test failed, the test was dummied up, you're going to crash relations with the Russians, you're going to crash relations with the Chinese." Most Americans, she says, don't even know that the United States has no defense against a long-range missile attack, that we have no defense against a rogue
terrorist missile attack.
Complacency, after all, is a common human trait, and the more prosperous we are the more complacent we are. What? Me worry?
This atmosphere makes it easy to pick apart the arguments for the missile shield. At a recent Washington symposium on international security, sponsored by anti-nuclear feminists who boast of their connections to Madeleine Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton, one panelist after another bashed the missile shield. "Something is not better than nothing," said a panelist representing the Union of Concerned Scientists. "You can't risk losing L.A."
But this gets it entirely backward. The argument ought to be that we're risking losing L.A. - and Dallas, Atlanta, Boston and any other city you might name - by not having the missile shield that most Americans think we probably already have, but don't. Saving even one of those cities would strike a lot of women as something worthwhile to do.
Women, it seems to me, are the perfect target of the argument for building a missile defense, and Condoleezza Rice is the perfect weapon for making it. She's very pretty in pink and pearls, but that's not what you focus on when you meet her. In an instant you're taken with the force of intelligence and command of the facts.
She reminds me that she and George W. are of the same generation, insinuating a closeness to the president that the older men may not have. I noticed that she was the first person the president called on his first day of vacation back at the ranch, to talk about Macedonia.
In our conversation, I got the distinct impression that Condoleezza Rice is holding her own in the position once held by Henry Kissinger, letting the guys in the blue suits hog the spotlight, but making her presence felt with power and panache, someone who can get the president's message out without getting caught in a crossfire of male ambition. One of the important messages of the moment is missile defense.
She had just returned from Russia, and described the need to move beyond the rhetoric of the Cold War to a strategically cooperative framework. The president, she said, has "a preferred course" of working out a cooperative deal with Russia to get beyond the 1972 ABM treaty and the attitudes from the freezer that bar building defenses against long-range missiles.
"Our guidance has been: Put together a testing program that will get us to the best possible missile defense system at the earliest possible date," she told me. "At the end of the day, (the president) is going to have to go forward."
When Republican strategists consider how to improve the president's standing with women, they talk softly about education and values of faith and family. That's fine. We need that. But women understand big sticks, too. This is no time patronize the little ladies. Unleash Condoleezza. She knows how to talk tough.