Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Arsenal of Democracy," a book on former President Carter and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, to be published this fall by Princeton University Press.
Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- The debate over the construction of an Islamic center and mosque in New York exploded into a fierce national controversy. President Obama was unable to contain the issue, and his comments only added fuel to the fire. Polls show that his approval ratings continue to fall.
But the debate over the Islamic center and mosque tells us as much about the tensions that are brewing within the Republican Party as it does about the challenges facing the White House. It is unclear whether any Republican has the capacity to unite the party and help repair the damage inflicted by the final year of President George W. Bush's presidency.
The same week that many conservatives were laser-focused on Muslims and the mosque, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed published in The Boston Globe criticizing the administration's economic policies. Romney argued that Obama's policies have been hampering, not helping, economic recovery and outlined as an alternative a package of tax cuts that he believes would generate growth.
Romney intended to send a message to fellow Republicans as well as Democrats. He is part of one faction in the GOP that wants to make the 2010 and 2012 elections about economics. This faction sees the high unemployment rate and the sluggish recovery as Obama's greatest vulnerability. Other conservatives have echoed similar themes, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has argued that tax cuts and reductions in government spending should be the centerpiece of the party platform.
But other Republicans want to focus on a different set of issues. These are the social conservatives who, since the 1970s, have been railing against the liberalization of American culture they say began in the 1960's "Age of Aquarius."
Although some Republicans have contained their criticism about the New York center and mosque to situating it so close to ground zero, many others have expanded this debate into an argument about the rights of Muslims in America. Other hot-button issues, such as immigration and gay marriage, have also animated these conservatives.
Although some major politicians have jumped into these debates, such as Newt Gingrich on the mosque and Sen. Lindsey Graham on immigration, this faction does not have any discernable leaders. Many of the giants among social conservatives, such as Ralph Reed, have fallen from power. The leadership remains rather amorphous, drawing from the loose network of Tea Party activists, remnants of the religious right and media figures such as Glenn Beck of Fox News.
Libertarians are the third faction. They have been a dying breed over the past few decades, as Republicans became comfortable with big government as they learned to use it for their own objectives. Libertarianism has made something of a comeback, first with Ron Paul and now with Rand Paul, both of whom have resurrected hard-line arguments against the value of federal intervention on almost any issue.
The final faction is made up of national security conservatives. This is the faction in the GOP that had been most dominant under George W. Bush. Early in Obama's presidency, this faction remained vocal as former Vice President Dick Cheney constantly attacked the administration's national security policies.
But over the past year, their voices faded. Although some of them, such as Bill Kristol, have joined in the debate over the Islamic center, most national security conservatives have been notably absent as public attention turned toward the economy. Obama also clipped their wings, to a certain extent, by continuing with many of Bush's national security policies.
The question for Republicans is whether anyone can hold this unwieldy coalition together. This is an area where the Republicans are extremely vulnerable. Republicans still have not recovered from the political implosion of their party in 2008.
Polls show that public approval of the Republicans remains low. Although more Americans are disapproving of the president, they still don't think very highly of the alternative. Also, Republicans, whose strategy has focused on obstructing Obama's agenda, have not developed a clear set of ideas and principles to define their party.
To be sure, Republicans have struggled with these divisions since the conservative revolution of the 1970s. It has thus been essential for the party to find unifying figures who could hold the pieces together. The master of this was Ronald Reagan, who in the 1980s offered a powerful combination of a charismatic persona with a thematic emphasis on anti-communism and tax cuts, all of which temporarily united the disparate elements of his party.
President George H.W. Bush did not have similar success -- many conservatives bolted from his administration's acceptance of a deficit-reducing tax hike in 1990 -- but his son enjoyed some success similar to Reagan's on the issue of national security after 9/11. During the second half of his presidency, however, the party fractured into pieces. President Bush's, and Karl Rove's, hope of building a grand coalition akin to what Republicans achieved in 1896, or Democrats in 1932, quickly faded.
The new Reagan clearly has not emerged. The problems were obvious in the 2008 primaries when all the candidates faltered in trying to rebuild Reagan's magic. Democrats, in contrast, found two strong candidates, Obama and Hillary Clinton, who could bring their coalition together.
None of the main Republican contenders for 2012 -- Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney or any others -- has demonstrated that he or she would be able to build a coalition from these factions. Several Republicans have been quite critical of Republican rhetoric over the Islamic center and mosque. Debates such as this one are a powerful reminder of how much work Republicans still have ahead of them if they want to be in a strong position by 2012.
If Republicans can't find a unifying figure like Reagan, and instead move toward one of the candidates who leans heavily toward one of these factions, the party won't be able to prevent the contradictions and internal tensions from drowning any effort to challenge Obama.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.