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The National Conventions: Blast From the Past or Vision of the Future?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Will the upcoming national conventions be snoozers, or will they actually offer some degree of excitement?

Over the last half century, these events have come to lack the suspense that accompanied them back in the days before state primaries wrested the power to choose party nominees from convention delegates and party officials.

Now, national conventions are largely an excuse for companies and party leaders to throw parties for delegates to attend, to network and have a good time. Beyond that, these quadrennial rituals are little more than pulpits from which each side takes shots at the other; and a forum to repeat why each had already selected the nominees it had for president and vice president.

Occasionally, however, these events provide rising stars the chance to have a moment on the national stage. The last two Democratic presidents benefitted immensely from the exposure gained from enjoying a prime-time speaking spot at their Party's national convention.

Bill Clinton's 1988 overly-long speech to his Party's conventioneers and the national TV audience -- while in many respects a less-then-stellar performance -- did introduce to the entire country this virtually unknown governor from a small, theretofore unimportant state. Without that opportunity, it is highly unlikely Clinton would have been able to successfully win his Party's nomination four years later.

History does indeed repeat itself. In 2004, a young, but still largely anonymous Illinois state Senator named Barack Obama was given a primetime speaking slot during the Democratic National Convention. He used the opportunity thus afforded him wisely. By the end of that year, he was elected to serve as a United States Senator, and a mere four years later he was sworn in as President of the United States.

Yet, for every Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, there are dozens of presidential wannabes who jockey for speaking slots at their national conventions, and from who little is heard in the months and years thereafter. Will things be different this year? Will the 2012 national conventions turn out to be blasts from the past or springboards to the future; echoes of the past or visions of the future?

The Democrats already have given us their answer to this question. The highlight of their soiree in Charlotte will be the loudest possible blast from the past -- former president Bill Clinton. Notwithstanding his legacy as only the second president in American history to be impeached, Bill Clinton remains probably the most sought-after and energetic speaker on the Democratic side of the political divide. Of course, compared to somnambulistic speakers like Vice President Joe Biden, there's not much one has to do to be considered an exciting speaker.

Still, the Democrats' choice of a former, disgraced president as their piece de resistance serves as testament to the lack of depth in their Party's farm team (and of their lack of faith in their current vice president to motivate voters). Whether other announced speakers, such as San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (being billed as the “next Barack Obama"), will be able to refocus Democratic Party voters on the future rather than the tarnished past of Bill Clinton, will be a real challenge for the Party in Charlotte later this month.

On the other side of the political aisle, If the Republican Party plays its cards right, it has a golden opportunity to highlight the depth of the GOP farm team.

The GOP possesses, by any objective measure, a much stronger cadre of eloquent, energetic and diverse candidates for national election than does the other side. Two of these leaders hail from the must-carry Sunshine State -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Allen West. Another serves as governor of the former Democratic Party stronghold of Louisiana -- Bobby Jindal. Then there is fiscal-policy rock star Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. To this stellar bill must now be added the Tea-Party backed GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ted Cruz. The list goes on and on.

If in fact Republican Party leaders provide a real opportunity later this month in Tampa to this group of potential national-level candidates, to highlight their oratorical skills and their substantive ideas, the GOP will lay a strong foundation for future presidential success, regardless of what happens this coming November. This is especially true given the fact that their rivals will be engaged in an obvious effort to mask the failures of the present with a blast from the past.

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