Is the GOP willing to obey a leader?

Or will the party lead the leader?

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The latest poll puts non-candidate and former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani at the top of the heap of Republican presidential contenders. A month ago it was Donald Trump. And earlier this year it was Mike Huckabee. In a month’s time, perhaps Sarah Palin’s bus tour of the Northeast will have catapulted her to the top. (Probably not.)

Meanwhile, more serious candidates like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (who announced last week) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (who will announce this week) will be among the frontrunners and will most likely battle each other through the primary season. Yet neither of them polls particularly strongly against the marginal/celebrity personalities the GOP is attracting. Newt Gingrich, an otherwise strong candidate, has had a disastrous start since declaring. His stumbles only add to the party’s woes. Why is the Republican field scoring so badly among the GOP’s supporters? Barack Obama is a formidable opponent, but the economy will likely emerge as the deciding issue come November 2012, and here the president is vulnerable.

The two most successful Republican presidencies of the last century were arguably those of Dwight Eisenhower (1952-60) and Ronald Reagan (1980-88). Eisenhower, a war hero in WWII, came to office as a fiscal conservative with impeccable national security credentials and was able to impose his brand of moderate conservatism. Reagan, the darling of the hard right, knew instinctively he needed to broaden his appeal to win the presidency and would have to govern closer to the center to accomplish things while in office. The GOP base did not get all it wanted in those years. But it was willing to follow their leaders because they transcended ideological and parochial concerns. Is the current incarnation of the GOP capable of following those examples?

Over the years, the GOP has embraced a vision of America that includes fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, neoconservatism, and libertarianism. True, it can be a volatile mix. But the GOP is usually able to put forward viable and competitive candidates. Today’s Republican party continues to embrace these schools of thought, with the Tea Party now adding a ferocious populist streak that has deepened the complexities within the party.

But the lessons from the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations remain, and they have a lot to do with how both men led the party. Because that is the challenge facing the Republicans in 2012—will the leader lead the party, or will the party lead the leader?