I blogged recently about President Barack Obama’s vision drift and the lack of a clear agenda in the White House as we muddle toward the 2012 political campaign.
But an even more pressing leadership crisis is emerging within the Republican movement.
This crisis comes in two forms. First, the slate of potential presidential candidates now dominating the landscape is complicated by a half-dozen figures who border on the buffoonish.
Even many Republicans are describing their line-up as unqualified and unelectable.
As the central Republican Party has weakened — ceding power to a pantheon of more independent tea-party-style organizations — the GOP has lost much of its ability to weed out these characters.
Donald Trump symbolizes the malaise. Every minute the Manhattan Hairpiece gobbles up on Fox News or The View is a minute that real political leaders don’t get to use to convey and hone their messages.
And Trump’s not alone.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin have both managed to confuse their infomercial-and-punditry financial empires with the future of the Republican Party.
And then there is Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, who is the Right’s version of Al Sharpton. She has also been garnering serious support, both in organizational backing and in millions of dollars of campaign cash.
With all of these sideshow acts sucking the oxygen out of the room, how is a serious candidate expected to emerge and compete with Barack Obama, who is likely to be the first candidate to raise $1 billion for his re-election?
An even bigger problem for Republicans may be that their more credible candidates — men like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty — are running hard from their own ideas.
Romney was an early architect of the kind of centrist healthcare reform adopted by President Barack Obama.
He installed a similar system — including the now much-dreaded personal mandate — while governor of Massachusetts. (The fact that he is a Mormon will also hinder his bid for the nomination.)
Pawlenty, meanwhile, was an early supporter of the cap-and-trade approach to curbing greenhouse gases, a concept that many conservatives embraced.
That kind of flip-floppery doesn’t sit well with voters, especially core conservatives within the GOP.
The reason for this leadership muddle is fairly simple.
Despite big gains in 2010 — to a certain degree, because of those gains — the conservative movement has continued to fracture among increasingly disparate groups.
Libertarians, evangelical Christians, tax-cutters, budget balancers, country club centrists, neoconservative hawks, isolationists, Muslim haters, illegal immigration activists and birthers.
It’s a dizzying array of factions. And unlike the left, these groups actually influence and shape the GOP’s message and political strategy to an enormous degree.
Which means that the most influential Republicans currently aren’t unifiers, or big-picture conservatives.
They are niche-fillers, base-cheerleaders and even a few outright demagogues.
These are folks, in other words, who know how to gratify and satisfy a narrow constituency, but have no real ideas (at least ones they’re willing to talk about) for leading a big, complex, modern and moderate nation.
None of this means that Republicans are out of the game. Americans know that the country needs some big changes and the GOP has a chance to craft a new, broad, hopeful and realistic message.
And in 2012, a lot of conservative-leaning voters will be casting their ballots against Barack Obama, no matter who occupies the Republican ticket.
For the present, I’m guessing that the battle for the GOP nomination will continue to be a noisy, entertaining and largely irrelevant circus.
But the politician who manages to tame and harness all those wild elephants could be our next president.