(Michele Bachmann in the GOP debate.)

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable exploring the GOP primary field.

Like most Americans, I think highly of few politicians, particularly those who aspire to be president. With few exceptions, they are willing to say and do whatever seems necessary to win over partisan voters and, if they are fortunate enough to be nominated, to attract that vital and  ideologically promiscuous group known as “independents” as well.

But, unlike many of my fellow citizens, I am not much bothered by the routine pandering of these fiercely ambitious men and women. After all, in a democracy office-holders should attempt to understand and represent the views of their constituents, both actual and potential. Would-be political leaders who oppose the deeply felt sentiments of voters usually cease to have the opportunity to lead them at all.

And for now, a large and confident movement on the right is leading those who hope to lead the nation. Amid an economic crisis and widespread fear of irreversible national decline, the first principles of anti-statism, whatever their consequences for American society, have wide appeal—if so far mostly among Republicans. The fault lies not in the GOP’s leading candidates but in those citizens who will decide which of them gets to run against a president who Michele Bachmann says has turned the United States into “a nation of slaves.”

On nearly every domestic issue, the three leading Republican candidates have taken positions that are in line with those espoused by activists in the Tea Party. Most of these positions are, by definition, not so much conservative as profoundly reactionary. They seek to repeal nearly everything of significance that the federal government has accomplished in domestic life, with popular support, since the early 20th century. Thus, Rick Perry calls Social Security “a failure” and a “Ponzi scheme” and would like to abolish the income tax and perhaps even the direct election of senators.

Both Perry and Michele Bachmann proudly declare their wish that all Americans convert to their type of triumphal Christianity. Even Mitt Romney, the leading “moderate” in the race, has stated that he would turn down a deal to cut the deficit if it increased taxes by just one-tenth the amount of spending it reduced. Without added revenue, massive cuts would decimate both entitlements and most discretionary spending. All three candidates would stop the National Labor Relations Board from carrying out the task it was established, in 1935, to perform: “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.”

But in adopting these stances, the trio is not lacking responsible leadership so much as they’re merely responding to the views of their party’s base. The “compassionate conservatism” that George W. Bush talked about a little more than a decade ago now sounds like liberal heresy. Just as unions and civil rights groups once compelled Democratic candidates to take up their causes (and sometimes still can), so Tea Partiers can now force Republican aspirants to echo their grievances. And prominent intellectual voices on the right either help to shape or echo the movement’s beliefs. Glenn Beck declares he “hates” Woodrow Wilson for instituting the Federal Reserve and the income tax, while George Will praises the Lochner decision by the Supreme Court in 1905 which struck down a New York law that limited the hours of bakery employees—and, by extension, the working hours of any other group of wage-earners. Suddenly, regulation of any kind is considered a way to “kill jobs.”

Of course, if one of these Republican candidates becomes president in 2013, he or she is unlikely to govern the way they are now campaigning. Like Ronald Reagan, who once rejected Medicare as “socialized medicine,” they will recognize that most Americans may curse big government but welcome those federal programs which directly benefit them. They expect, or at least hope, that public officials will keep the economy prosperous and deliver good education to their children, a decent income and cheap medical care when they retire, and will provide swift and efficient aid whenever disaster strikes.

Unwittingly, the Republican frontrunners are already demonstrating the contradiction between their rhetoric about limited government and what all but the most conservative voters actually want a president to do. In last week’s debate, Romney and Perry jousted over which one had “created more jobs” as governor of their respective states—as if a public executive were a Soviet commissar executing a five-year plan. If one of them is elected next November, Tea Party activists will soon be a disappointed bunch.

Michael Kazin is the author of the new book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.

Related Articles:

Bill Brock: Why can’t Republican candidates fill the Democratic void?

Donald F. Kettl: Somewhere between Obama and the political earth’s edge

Michael Kazin: The fault lies not within the GOP leaders but within ourselves

Jena McGregor: Are so many GOP debates just a setup for letdown?