A recent Huffington Post piece highlights the possible use of Rule 40 by the Ron Paul campaign at the national convention in Tampa. The story seems more interested in the prospect that the Republicans’ gathering could become “convention chaos” than in putting the tactic into the context of freedom of expression, democratized politics, or convention history. Unfortunately, deep thinking and historical awareness are rarities among mainstream pundits on both sides of the aisle.

Rule 40 allows a presidential candidate to have his name formally placed in nomination — through nominating and seconding speeches — at the Republican National Convention if his candidacy has the support of a plurality of delegates within at least five state delegations. For months, the question on the minds of Paul supporters has been, “Do we have five states?” Maine, Minnesota, and Iowa are clearly in the Paul camp. Then there are states in which a plurality of delegates are pledged to Romney but are personally committed to Paul. Finally, there are states that have had divisive state conventions, which resulted in murky outcomes. Nevada, Colorado, Massachusetts, Virginia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arizona may fall into the latter two categories. (Apparently, Rule 40 does not specify that the plurality has to be bound to the candidate it wishes to place in nomination. Despite press reports that the result at Nebraska’s state convention ensured that Paul’s name won’t be entered, the Credentials and Rules committees in Tampa may decide otherwise.)

Some have confused the five-state rule, which applies to the eligibility of a candidate to be placed in nomination, with the ability of delegates to vote for a candidate during the presidential roll-call balloting. A candidate need not be placed in nomination to be on the receiving end of delegate votes. A delegate is free to vote for whomever he or she wishes, unless that delegate is bound to a candidate who remains in the race.

In 1992, 18 delegates cast their votes for Pat Buchanan even though he had dropped out of the race and was not placed in nomination. At the same convention, two voted for Howard Phillips and one for Alan Keyes. Neither was a candidate for the Republican nomination that year. In 1996, Buchanan — again, a dropped-out contender — received 43 votes, while ex-candidates Keyes and Phil Gramm received one each. Judge Robert Bork received one vote as well.

In 2000, Keyes was not placed in nomination, but he was a very distant runner-up to Governor Bush with six votes. Fellow ex-candidate John McCain received one. In 2008, Ron Paul was the second-place finisher at the convention, trailing far behind McCain, with 21 votes.

As was the case four years ago, delegates to the 2012 convention will be able to cast votes for Paul — provided they are unpledged to Romney. Some Paul enthusiasts, possessing more zeal than knowledge, believe that no delegate on the floor of the Tampa convention will be bound in any sense, that all will be free to follow their own consciences. Barring a revolutionary change in convention practice, this is clearly not true.

Much of the grief that the Republican establishment has received at state conventions this year is of its own making. Pragmatists who have resigned themselves to a Romney nomination argue that Romney has won and Paul has lost, thus Paul’s supporters should give up and rally around the winner if they want to be seen as loyal party members and defeat the hated Obama.

There is some truth to this argument: there is such a thing as a good loser. It involves a willingness to face reality and to be gracious in defeat. There is also such a thing as a good winner. Recognizing the reality of his accomplishment, a good winner is gracious in victory. While some Paul backers are sore losers, it is equally true that some Romney backers are sore winners. What would it cost Governor Romney and the RNC to announce that they are waiving the five-state Rule 40 requirement and allowing Congressman Paul to have his moment in the sun at the convention? Far from hurting the Romney campaign, it would be a magnanimous gesture from a position of strength. It would serve to placate Paul supporters, as a show of respect, and to unify the party.

Granted, there is little congruence between the views of Romney and Paul. Romney is a plutocratic imperialist unlikely to diminish unconstitutional big government at home or abroad. Paul is the opposite. Although devotion to Paul approaches the level of a cult of personality for some admirers, the devotion is grounded in principle, not personality. Paul stands for something beyond a desire for personal power. His is a campaign of ideas. Romney seems to be one of those odd persons who has wanted to be president his entire life, probably because his father — a front-running candidate in 1966-67 — fell short of the goal and was forced out of the race by an embarrassing faux pas: George Romney  publicly told the truth about the Vietnam War. This is one of the ironies of the 2012 campaign, as the Republican powers who have coalesced around Mitt Romney continue to excoriate Ron Paul for being insufficiently hawkish.

With looks out of central casting and a carefully-crafted career trajectory, Mitt Romney’s thirst for power is palpable but contentless. Who is genuinely enthused by the prospect of Romney as the GOP nominee or as our next president? Two groups: his immediate family and (some) devout Mormons. Millions are enthused by the prospect of Romney replacing Obama in the White House, but that’s anti-Obama not pro-Romney.

Still, because Romney is an opportunist, he can be pushed in the right direction. Obviously, such a professional weather vane is more likely to be turned in malevolent directions by the prevailing winds of Washington and New York, but it’s at least possible that he will respond to better breezes if sufficient grassroots pressure is brought to bear. Not because he truly cares but because he wants to be elected, reelected, and revered.

It is on this basis that the more pragmatic, long-run-oriented Paul supporters might be able to do business with the Romney camp. Sen. Rand Paul’s endorsement fits this scenario. It’s a scenario without illusion. It’s business, not belief.

Allowing Ron Paul to be placed in nomination, allowing an old-fashioned demonstration to occur on the convention floor, and allowing unbound delegates to pay tribute to their champion by casting votes without pressure or hostility would be a wise move by Romney. Far from being an embarrassment or a sign of divisiveness, it would denote strength of personal character and political position. This would preempt “convention chaos” and let the Paul campaign be more persuasive in its attempt to keep its delegates respectful and on-task.

What will the task of the Paul campaign be at the convention? It’s not clear at this point. It can’t be to win the nomination because the campaign has already conceded Romney cannot be stopped. (Although never-say-die supporters are hoping this concession was just a ruse, it was really an acknowledgement of reality.) What the official task will be is not clear, but we can say what the task ought to be. It should involve three aspects: 1) convention floor debates and votes on minority platform planks, 2) pressure to nominate a traditional conservative/small-government/Tea Party-oriented vice presidential running mate, and 3) a reminder that the 2 to 4 million Paul supporters in the hinterland may be needed to defeat Obama.

Some leaders of the Paul campaign seem to be saying that the main accomplishment this year is the sending of hundreds of “liberty movement” delegates to Tampa. But that’s not enough. What are they going to do once they arrive? Exchanging one group of bit players in a drama for a different group, without affecting the script, is no change at all.

There are real and significant differences between Romney and Paul, as well as their supporters. These differences should not be papered over. They should be openly faced, and the convention is the place to discuss the direction in which the party wishes to go. Does it return to the failed policies of the Bush administration, which set the stage for the Obama administration when it came to deficit spending, corporate bailouts, big-government regulation, executive overreach, disregard of the Constitution, and reckless foreign policy? Or does it go back to the future, moving forward by returning the party’s limited-government, non-interventionist roots? Even the area of the Paul campaign that is most controversial among average conservative Republicans is firmly rooted in the Republican tradition. It’s nothing more nor less than Robert Taft’s emphasis on armed neutrality for a republic (vs. entangling alliances for empire), Dwight Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex, and Barry Goldwater’s preference for common-sense nationalism over starry-eyed internationalism.

The most rabid critics of Paulesque foreign policy are the neoconservatives. They were liberal Democrats who backed Lyndon Johnson in 1964, not Goldwater. What’s conservative about that pedigree? “Neoconservatives” are as old as Woodrow Wilson and as liberal as Hubert Humphrey. Why not make a frontal assault on the dangerous nonsense that passes for “conservative” foreign policy today? Historically speaking, platform planks that failed to make it out of the resolutions committee often made an appearance on the convention floor. Why not revive this tradition? Granted, the nominee will try to ignore the parts of the platform with which he disagrees, but there is still some value to putting the party on record in support of good things and in opposition to bad.

Genuine conservatives should put pressure on Romney to choose a genuine conservative running mate to balance the presidential nominee’s mushy ideology and inconsistent track record. Assuming that Romney will announce his choice before Tampa, the pressure needs to start now and continue even after the choice is announced. While it would be near-impossible for convention delegates to overturn Romney’s VP choice, dissatisfaction could take the form of offering a rival vice presidential candidate, thus serving notice that conservatives will not accept another pseudo-conservative party hack without public protest.

Realizing his weakness among grassroots Republicans, John McCain tried to balance the ticket in 2008 by choosing Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, Governor Palin was not up to the challenge of serving as a counterweight, as she quickly distanced herself from her Assemblies of God/Pat Buchanan/Alaskan Independence Party connections and tried to morph into a conventional Republican more acceptable to the party’s secular, neoconservative establishment (despite subsequent boasts of having gone “rogue”). It’s unlikely that Romney will choose to run with Rand Paul, but it would be a smart selection. So would Tom Coburn or Jim DeMint. Why? Because unlike a Pawlenty, Portman, Ryan, or Rubio — to say nothing of Condoleezza Rice — these men possess a sincerely conservative worldview and belong to a different wing of the party in comparison to Romney. (Rubio is referred to as “Tea Party,” but when he has Jeb Bush and Haley Barbour in his corner, how anti-establishment can he be?)

Odd-couple pairings such as Mitt Romney-Rand Paul have precedent. In the 1920s, and again in the 1940s, establishment Republican nominees reached out to the opposing wing of the party by trying to tap anti-establishment running mates. In 1920, Harding wanted Hiram Johnson, but Johnson declined. The same thing happened when Coolidge tried to choose William Borah in 1924. In 1940, Willkie unified the party by selecting Charles McNary. Dewey ran with John Bricker in 1944. Ironically, the establishment nominees won in the two instances in which the populist/nationalist leaders refused to join the ticket and lost in the two instances in which both wings of the party were successfully represented. But there were other factors at work during these two different decades: the unpopularity of the Wilson regime and disillusionment over World War I vs. the popularity of FDR and the waging of World War II.

A reverse example is the teaming of an anti-establishment presidential nominee with an establishment running mate. Of course, such nominees are few and far between. By the time Ronald Reagan was nominated in 1980, he had apparently made his peace with the party establishment. The choosing of Bush by Reagan was unnecessary and a signal that the nominee had capitulated in a major way to his ideological adversaries within the party. He set someone in place as his heir apparent who represented the polar opposite of what he himself professed to believe. A national news service at the time reported,

George Bush is rapidly becoming the coalition candidate for vice president among the non-conservatives at the GOP National Convention. . . . Party sources said Reagan is under intense pressure from the GOP establishment . . . to name Bush. [UPI, 7-15-80]

In contrast to Reagan’s choosing of Bush—a distant primary-season runner-up—the situation in 1976 shows how the liberal wing of the party plays the game. When Ford was choosing a running mate, after barely defeating Reagan at the convention, he did not seriously consider—let alone choose—any Reagan conservative. Reagan himself was not asked. Neither Paul Laxalt nor Jesse Helms, neither John Ashbrook nor Phil Crane were contemplated or selected. The party in 1980 was much less divided. Bush had far less popular appeal than Reagan had possessed four years earlier. Compared to Bush—with his somewhat preppy, wimpy, and goofy persona—Ashbrook, Crane, Helms, Jim Buckley, or Jack Kemp would have strengthened the ticket as much or more.

Wouldn’t public pressure and complaint by Republican conservatives hurt Mitt Romney’s chances of beating Barack Obama? Maybe, but not necessarily. It might even help him. Continued challenges by conservatives—supporters of Paul, Santorum, Gingrich, and others—would show that they were serious about their ideals and primary-season rhetoric. Challenges might also force Romney to be a better candidate and to unite the party in a way that goes far beyond anything envisioned by his pragmatic handlers and neoconservative advisors.

In the old days, presidential contenders battled right up through the national convention. National conventions were freewheeling affairs that brought lots of diverse loyalties and opinions together under one tent. Yes, they were often contentious, but they were also exciting. They attracted a national audience and networks responded with gavel-to-gavel coverage. Nowadays, conventions are showcases for unity. No dissent is allowed. There is no debate. They are not contests. They are coronations. They are prepackaged, cut-and-dried, and mind-numbingly dull. That’s why the networks have cut back on their coverage and what passes for coverage is little more than the transmission of spoken press releases from the podium along with magnifying the tiniest bits of inconsequential gossip and allowing various nincompoops to comment on the uneventful proceedings.

Who in his right mind would want to watch a multi-day infomercial for Mitt Romney? On the other hand, some suspense and controversy, some debate and decision-making, may attract a wider-than-usual audience for the ultimate nominee. Perhaps it would show undecided voters that the Republican Party is not just a private club of old, rich, white people. Maybe it would show uninspired conservatives that there is a vibrant presence within the party that remembers Taft, Goldwater, Reagan, and Buchanan. Conceivably it could show principled believers in liberty and community, in morality and democracy, that the GOP is not just a vehicle for power-seekers who bash Obama for partisan reasons and yearn for a return to the “golden age” of Bush-Cheney.

Incidentally, I’m focusing on Ron Paul because he is the only candidate who has not suspended his effort, but I feel the same way about other unsuccessful candidates. It is both desirable and advisable for Romney to respect the supporters of all of the Republican contenders. Why shouldn’t Santorum and Gingrich get some votes during the roll call? Or Bachmann and Perry? Several of these candidates put far more personal effort into the early caucuses and primaries, and pumped more cash into state parties, than did Romney. They were not resting on their laurels or exhibiting their sense of entitlement. They had to work at it. They energized the base in a way that Romney never did and probably never can. The fact that they lost does not mean that their efforts, issues, and supporters should be airbrushed out of the picture.

The popular vote for Ron Paul during the 2012 primary season was a little over 2 million, putting him in fourth place among the GOP contenders. This number does not include those who initially backed him but did not ultimately vote for him because he lost momentum after New Hampshire and eventually stopped campaigning in primary states. It also does not include Independents and Democrats who favored him for president but could not participate in Republican contests because they did not want to change their party registration. All told, it is likely that 3 to 4 million Americans supported Paul’s candidacy this past year. Hardcore, libertarian, establishment-hating Paul voters are unlikely to vote Romney in November regardless of what happens between now and then. However, many Paul supporters are either traditional conservative Republicans who want Obama out of the White House or are swing-voting populists who have become disillusioned with Obama and want to punish him for his various betrayals. Such voters may be available to Romney if he treats Ron Paul and his convention delegates with respect.

In 2008, the McCain campaign and RNC treated Paul and his supporters with contempt. Paul himself was not even going to be allowed on the convention floor without escorts. So he staged a rival convention: the Rally for the Republic, which was more interesting, honest, and inexpensive than McCain’s convention. Former congressman Barry Goldwater Jr. introduced Paul to the crowd of 12,000 at the Target Center — each attendee paid $17.76 to get in the door. At the establishment gathering, Paul received 21 votes for president on the first and only ballot. The pettiness of the party leaders is revealed by the fact that none of the Paul votes were announced aloud by the convention chair. Meanwhile, a different failed candidate received 2 votes and they were announced from the podium after being cast. His name was Mitt Romney. Did Romney repudiate his two loyalists from Utah? Not that I’ve heard.

The idea that “party loyalty” demands that Paul drop out of the race and endorse Romney before the convention flies in the face of a much larger part of the Romney backstory. In 1964, not only did Mitt’s father, Governor George Romney, not endorse Barry Goldwater before the convention, but he had his own name placed in nomination for president even though he had no chance of victory and Goldwater had bested his one remaining rival. Gerald Ford proposed Romney to the convention as Michigan’s favorite-son; he also received 1 vote from Kansas (his uncle, Vernon Romney, led a solid Utah delegation for Goldwater). Romney’s candidacy in 1964 was part of the stop-Goldwater effort and he refused to support Goldwater even after he was nominated—declining even to appear on the same stage with the nominee or his running mate.

In 1968, George Romney was again a favorite-son candidate after he had fumbled his chance to be the nominee and lost the support of Nelson Rockefeller. The significant thing is that Romney was again placed in nomination and he welcomed his receipt of 44 votes from Michigan and (yes) 6 from Utah even though he had no chance of winning. Has Mitt Romney forgotten his family history? Does he not feel a bit sheepish about holding Ron Paul to a standard that was not applied to his own father by Goldwater and Nixon?

We’ve considered the presidential nomination part of Rule 40. The twist in the story comes from the fact that Rule 40 also applies to vice presidential candidates. Paul may not have the five-state pluralities to allow him to officially “seek” the presidential nomination at the convention, but delegates who are bound to Romney for president are not bound to anyone for vice president. In other words, Paul supporters from Nevada who are obligated to vote for Romney on the first ballot for president are free to vote for whomever they choose on the balloting for vice president (if there is balloting). Paul apparently does have a plurality of stealth/actual supporters in at least five states, thus qualifying as a candidate who could be placed in nomination for vice president. Delegates themselves could initiate this move at the convention, although presumably Paul would need to agree to the effort to bring it to its speech-making and roll-call-voting fruition.

A challenge from the convention floor over the vice presidential nomination has precedents. At the 1976 Republican National Convention, the California and Texas delegations were the backbone of the Ronald Reagan effort in Kansas City. After the liberal Ford had defeated the conservative Reagan, Ford chose a Ford backer, the moderate Robert Dole, as his running mate. The Texas delegation was so conservative that it was the only state to give a majority of its votes to men more conservative than Dole when voting on the vice presidential nomination. Jesse Helms received 43 from Texas, Dole received 26, and Reagan received 9, among others. Who was the chairman of the 100-member, 100-percent Reagan-supporting Texas delegation at the 1976 convention? Congressman Ron Paul. Senator Helms’s name was placed in nomination but he withdrew. Nevertheless, he received 103 votes for vice president, compared to Dole’s 1,921. Ford later lost the general election, but his defeat had nothing to do with the principled protest made by pro-Reagan/Helms delegates at the national convention a few months earlier.

Once again, the legacy of George Romney is instructive. It’s the presidential nominee’s prerogative to select his own running mate. That has been the norm for many decades. The convention normally accepts the vice presidential choice by acclamation. At the 1968 convention, however, some liberals were dissatisfied with Nixon’s choice of Spiro Agnew. Although he was from the liberal wing of the party himself, Governor Agnew had turned against Rockefeller and had embraced Nixon and right-wing rhetoric for political reasons. Some liberal delegates proposed Governor Romney as an alternative. Romney allowed his name to be placed in nomination for vice president. Not surprisingly, Agnew beat him 1,119 to 186, but the protest nomination was allowed and the votes were recorded. The vice presidential scuffle at the 1968 convention did not adversely affect Nixon’s chances of becoming president. He won the election.

Mitt Romney’s father was placed in nomination for president in 1964 and 1968 despite having no chance to win either time. Romney’s father refused to endorse the 1964 nominee before or after the convention. Romney’s father was placed in nomination as a challenge to the handpicked vice presidential candidate in 1968. Mitt Romney himself received a couple votes for president from loyal supporters at the 2008 convention.Why should he begrudge the Ron Paul campaign an appropriate conclusion at the 2012 convention? His refusal to do so makes little sense, considering how it contradicts tradition — both political and personal.

Jeff Taylor is associate professor of political studies at Dordt College and author of Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy. He is an unbound delegate to this year’s Republican National Convention. The views presented in this essay are his own and are independent of any campaign or other organization.