TAMPA — One of Wednesday's most interesting and telling moments came when Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, took the podium. Rice brought the delegates to their feet when she marveled at the fact that a young African-American girl raised in Jim Crow Birmingham could grow up to be secretary of state. That's a matter of evident pride for Republicans, who rose in a standing ovation for her. It was a genuine American moment.
Rice did not take to the role of partisan warrior with much avidity, however. Instead of sweeping accusations, she spoke in the precise and measured diction of an academic. For those who favor intelligent discussion, that made her speech a welcome break from the tired tropes of this convention -- though it didn't provide much red meat for the partisans.
Yes, Rice played a mild variation of some favorite Republican themes. "Ours has never been a narrative of grievance and entitlement," she declared. "We have never been jealous of one another and never envious of each other's successes." That's a mild nod to the GOP's over-the-top accusation that President Obama has engaged in invidious class warfare. (The accusation itself comes largely because the president feels that tax rates for upper earners should go back to what they were in the booming '90s.) She also called for more choice in education, particularly for "poor parents, whose kids, very often minority, are trapped in failing neighborhood schools." There she is surely right. Because of their political alliance with the teachers unions, the Democrats have for too long been content with traditional system progress that is often incremental at best. (That said, the Obama administration has used its Race to the Top program to cajole states to lift caps on charter schools.)
On international affairs, Rice warned that the US had to lead and to be clear about where it stood, lest the world become a more dangerous place. That, of course, could be as much a warning to the neo-isolationist wing of the Republican Party as a rebuke of the Obama administration.
And that was about as far as she went.
Although a bristly John McCain, who seldom sees a conflict without thinking that it requires prompt American intervention, was sharply critical of Obama's foreign policy, Rice wasn't. Her principal criticism was that Obama hasn't pursued new free-trade agreements.
All in all, Rice's speech underscored this point: Unlike past elections, foreign policy is not an area where Democrats are vulnerable in 2012. Romney has mostly confined himself to generic criticisms. That's not a surprise, as he seems only lightly schooled in world complexities. But the fact that one of the GOP's leading foreign-policy experts had little to add by way of particulars spoke volumes.