Only yesterday liberals stood back in awe of the mighty power and precision of conservative media. In the 1990s, talk radio came into its own, rallying conservatives from coast to coast and hammering the Clinton White House for sins real (Monica Lewinsky), imagined (Vince Foster’s “murder”), and sundry places in between (Paula Jones et al.).

Then along came Fox News. For conservatives, Fox wasn’t just the antidote to a media environment they viewed as poisonously liberal, it was a staging area. With a network essentially at their disposal, Republican leaders could launch communications strategies and conservative activists could unleash attacks on the opposition from a secure base. With the White House and Republican National Committee dispensing the talking points, no one on the Right or Left questioned whether talk radio and Fox were assets to the Republican cause: Their strategic value in disseminating a consistent message was obvious.

That was then.

Since 2006, Republican leaders have ceded vast tracts of electoral terrain to the Democrats. Since November, they have compounded that loss, ceding the airwaves of talk radio and Fox News to a cavalcade of entertainers, ideologues, and back benchers who probably couldn’t be more damaging to Republican prospects if they were an android army under the command of David Axelrod.

The problem goes well beyond Rush Limbaugh. The recent “tea parties,” which senior Republican leaders generally avoided, were organized by media personalities in the hunt for ratings, not Republican operatives in the hunt for political leverage. Of course, it’s possible that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who failed to make time for tea, is a clueless dolt and the guy who was holding up the picture of Obama with a Hitler mustache is a political genius. But I’m guessing otherwise.

Similarly, Republican leaders largely failed to join in the premature denunciations of Obama as a lily-livered weakling over the Somali pirate affair. Instead, Fox’s Glenn Beck led the charge, transforming the saga of three Somali teenagers and an American captain bobbing at sea into the second coming of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This, Beck told his audience, was “a critical test” of Obama’s presidency, a national security crucible of such high stakes that the White House simply must prevail. By the time the scrawny pirates were dead, and the captain rescued, Beck and his cohorts had handed Obama a major “military” victory, quite a prize to fashion from a soggy hostage-taking on the other side of the world. Along the way, GOP strategists lost a battle they never even waged.

Throughout the Bush years, the conservative media gang was more than simpatico to Republicans; it was a political workhorse. Now, in the wake of November’s defeat, the GOP has lost the reins. Conservative media, driven by the corporate appetite for ratings and the egos of television stars, has become a showhorse.

Because of the fractured Republican leadership, however, the showhorse is setting the agenda. I did a double take reading this Wall Street Journal news story (paywall) on “Republican reactions” to Obama’s plan to cap salaries at companies receiving TARP funds. The first “Republican leader” quoted in the story was Fox host Sean Hannity. Comments from House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell followed.

In addition to promoting themselves as conservative leaders, Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck and their imitators have given public platforms to zesty stars like Michele Bachmann, a previously obscure Republican congresswoman whose sunny ramblings on conspiracy theories and such have made her a YouTube hit for all the wrong reasons. Every time Bachmann gets a television booking, somewhere a Republican strategist gets a migraine.

Political parties lose elections. Then they regroup, retool, and fight their way back to power. Sooner or later, the clouds will break and the GOP will figure out how to do battle in the era of Obama. If only their friends in conservative media will let them.