Ross Douthat has a thoughtful piece in the NY Times today on the failure — so far — of the populist wing of the Republican Party to find candidates and policies that can compete at the presidential level. He’s certainly right that figures like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Herman Cain generate excitement among populist Republicans but don’t connect with a broader electorate — and often seem to falter over time.My own sense is that populists today are more clearly united by what they oppose than by a common program for what to do next. It is easier to be against President Obama’s health care reform than to come up with an alternative. It is easier to know that big government is bad and that the federal government has gotten too big to work well than it is to know how to develop new models of decentralized federalism. It is easier to perceive and resent the failures of elites than to develop and build majority support for new ways to reform entitlements, manage America’s participation in the global economy and develop foreign policy ideas to cope with everything from terrorism to the rise of China to the break up of the euro.Historically populism in America is more about visions than about programs. In the past, leaders as different in character and opinions as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan have benefited from support by populists who believed they were the strong leaders American needed at the time.Often, by the way, these leaders when elected with populist support ended up doing some things that populists did not support. The key was that ordinary Americans trusted these leaders; they believed that a George Washington would guide the US in the right direction even when they did not understand or did not like what he was doing. All leaders sometimes disappoint the base; great leaders may do it more often — but they keep the public trust even as they lead the public in a new direction.The quest for real leaders is more difficult today; the kind of press scrutiny candidates must undergo would almost certainly have kept FDR and JFK out of the White House. An Abraham Lincoln might not run, knowing what the campaign publicity would do to his wife and how her fragile mental health would become an issue. I am not quite sure why so many reporters are so self righteously certain that the modern press system makes government “better” than previously; it seems to me a country in which people like Lincoln and Roosevelt can serve is better than one in which they can’t.But the problem of populist conservatives, that they can’t find a leader, is something they share with the United States as a whole. 2011 is not one of those times when our political life is led by giants; Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Charles Sumner would not find all that many friends and peers in the vainglorious chamber of winds that is the contemporary US Senate. Why a republic of 50 million could produce more great leaders than one six times that size is an interesting conundrum, but there is no doubt that among America’s many problems today, the absence of great national leadership looms large.