In the long lull before the Republican National Convention in Tampa in late August, party leaders and strategists for Mitt Romney are calculating how they can put their collective best foot forward. This year, it will not be easy.
The usual centerpieces of the event are the selection of the presidential nominee and the choice of a running mate; however, the first piece is already clear, and the second may well be known before the delegates gather. In any event, Mitt Romney being certifiably cautious, there seems little chance he will drop a firecracker of the sort John McCain tossed in four years ago with his selection of the combustible Sarah Palin.
So the other opportunity to excite and inspire the party and the watching public may be the array of speakers chosen to peddle Mr. Romney, a trying task so far, and also to sell the GOP's agenda for the next four years.
Who will be served up from the failed crop of 2012? Newt Gingrich? Herman Cain? Perhaps Rick Santorum, but certainly not Michele Bachmann, who has raised the ghost of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy with her recent suggestion that the father of Huma Abedin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's aide, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ms. Bachmann also threw in Ms. Abedin's mother and a brother for good measure.
Mr. McCain accused the Minnesota congresswoman of making "unwarranted and unfounded" accusations, and House Majority Leader John Boehner labeled them "pretty dangerous." But she dug in, saying, "I will not be silent as this administration appeases our enemies instead of telling the truth about the threats our country faces." Her chances of speaking at the party convention must now be rated minimal.
There was a time when the Republican tent covered a fair range of diverse personalities preaching variations of how to do the country's business. It ranged from conservative true believers like Bob Taft and Barry Goldwater to liberal icons Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller. In between also were acceptable straddlers like Richard Nixon and Bob Dole.
Even Ronald Reagan, who famously talked the conservative talk, turned out as president to be willing to walk the middle road when it came to raising taxes to keep his administration afloat. It was a time when Republicans not only could but did talk to Democrats, and the GOP of the right did the same with what there was of the GOP left.
In those days, the party was able to field a broad team of speakers that as a group might have something to say to everybody, and the very presence of the two wings worked to cast a reasonable tone over its conventions.
In 1964 in San Francisco, when Goldwater lashed out at Rockefeller with his memorable declaration that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and "moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue," howls of protest were heard far and wide. Many good Republicans ran for cover and Goldwater was buried in November.
In 1992, ultraconservative Patrick Buchanan, who had given the senior George Bush a scare in the party's primaries, fired up fundamentalists at the convention by saying there was "a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America." It left a bad taste in many voters' mouths and was blamed by some for Mr. Bush's loss to Bill Clinton.
But in both years and others in the past, the Republican Party always had enough voices of accommodation — like Mr. Dole, Howard Baker and others — to appeal to moderates and some Democrats, as Reagan demonstrated. As a group, they were able to offer a less doctrinaire posture than the current party core, which is weighted heavily to the right, represents today.
With the convention hall expected to seat a fair share of tea party advocates, they are likely to be disappointed without some red meat tossed to them beyond a loud chorus against President Obama, who remains the prime unifying factor for all Republicans. In all, the prospect of a hot time in Tampa seems unlikely unless, between now and then, the bland Mitt Romney has a personality transplant.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.