With issues—the federal budget, taxes, healthcare—dominating the political discourse, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that social and political movements need strong leaders. Leaders can operate behind the scenes, supplying money and strategic planning, or they can be politicians, but they have to be dug up somewhere. Yet the most convincing and popular figures today are media characters—Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow—and media characters as a rule don’t meet the need.
Both Left and Right are struggling to find leadership. Each of the announced Republican presidential candidates shows significant flaws, which is why anyone who jumps into the race immediately becomes the “flavor of the week.” And no one has stepped in to fill the enthusiasm vacuum left on the Democratic side when Candidate Obama morphed into President Compromise. Attempts to get liberals excited about Elizabeth Warren’s Senate run only show how hard the Left is looking.
Grass roots are all very well, but the Tea Party would be decaffeinated without ongoing funding from the Koch brothers, while health care reform would never have passed without charismatic Candidate Obama’s 2008 election victory. The people who’ve put themselves forward as political leaders on the Right over the past few years have revealed themselves as clowns (Palin, Bachmann, now Perry), while on the Left, the President has appeared weak-willed.
It’s debatable how much of that last fact derives from Obama’s own nature and how much comes from the political need (because of his race) to be exceptionally non-controversial, but the fact remains, and the Democrats seem stuck with him for 2012. Fortunately it’s campaign season and Candidate Obama is beginning to make appearances, so there may be hope on that score.
On the Republican side, while the calendar says it’s early, if the state organizations keep squabbling about who’s going to have the earliest primary the GOP may have to settle unusually early on a standard bearer. And if that bearer proves substandard, the Right will be as stuck with their caricature of a figurehead as the Left is with its disappointing President. Who wins in 2012 may well be a matter of whose leadership appears, well, the less feeble.