Everything but the choice of vice-presidential candidate seems wrapped up as the Republicans gather in Detroit to put the crown of nomination on Ronald Reagan. But that choice is a critical one, for it will tell voters just how much flexibility there could be in a Reagan administration. The fundamental question is: Will the GOP count on courting a broad ideological spectrum of the electorate by putting yp a relative moderate as the presidential running mate? Or is it persuaded this is the year when the American people are prepared to try right-of-center conservatism?
Republican strategists have sought to stress Mr. Reagan's "pragmatism" over rigid ideological conviction. They point to his record as governor of California in support of this strategy. But the staunchly conservative platform adopted by the GOP platform committee last week is bound to leave numbers of Republicans and fence-sitting Democrats wondering. It contains some very tough language and proposals. Thus, abandoning the policies pursued by the Nixon and Ford administrations, the platform calls for a restoration of "military superiority" over the Soviet Union -- a policy which would entail an enormous leap in US defense expenditures and invite an even bigger and more dangerous arms race with the Soviet Union.
Some foreign policy planks were watered down, to be sure, but with the platform's stress on arms the overall tone is hawkish. There is little doubt Americans are prepared to be "tougher" on the Russians but it is doubtful they are ready for the kind of tax burden an all-out arms race would require. That Mr. Reagan believes he can achieve more military muscle by cutting taxes by 30 percent over three years only adds to the wonderment. The choice of a Jack Kemp for vice- president would certainly not dispel it.
Other planks in the platform raise similar concern that Mr. Reagan wants to take the country further to the right than it may wish to go. Are Americans really in the mood for a change in the Constitution to ban abortio ns, for weakening federal gun-control laws, for reinstituting the death penalty, and for nondenominational prayer in public schools? And how will they look on the plank calling for the appointment of judges, including Supreme Court justices, who are opposed to abortion -- a blatantly inconsistent proposal when one considers the Republicans accused Mr. Carter of making partisan judicial nominations?
The GOP proposal to repeal the 55-mile- per-hour speed limit also will strike many as self-defeating in light of the lofty words about moving the country toward "energy self-sufficiency." The American people may want government out of their hair, but does this mean they oppose all reasonable federal efforts to encourage conservation?
It would be unrealistic to place too much weight on the Republican platform. Past experience shows that political platforms are honored more in the breach than in the observance. Mr. Reagan already is softening the more extreme GOP positions in his public statements. And, as Godfrey Sperling writes on our pages today, Republican leaders are astutely putting out lines to organized labor in order to court traditionally Democratic workers' votes. The signs are that the GOP does want to broaden its base.
To do so, however, Mr. Reagan has some fence-mending to do on the dissension caused by his rejection of the Equal rights Amendment -- a move which will certainly not be decisive in the election but could cost him some votes and good will. He will also have to come up with a vice-presidential candidate who has the qualifications to be president himself, who can best attract a wide range of voters into the republican fold, and who can give the GOP a national appeal. The Republicans once before lost an election with an ideologically right-wing ticket. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the selection of a running mate perceived as a moderate and centrist would be a more certain road to victory.