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Can Boehner's GOP deliver on promises?

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • With new GOP majority in House, spotlight shifts to Speaker John Boehner
  • Julian Zelizer says Republicans are under pressure to deliver on campaign promises
  • He says track record shows GOP has trouble balancing budget
  • He questions whether Washington veterans such as Boehner can shift gears

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Following a traumatic week for the nation in the wake of the Arizona shootings, Congress will get back to business this week. As House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's spokesperson announced, "It is important for Congress to get back to work, and to that end we will resume thoughtful consideration of the health care bill."

On Capitol Hill, Republicans find themselves in a position that seemed inconceivable a few years earlier, even to most conservatives. Although Democrats retain control of the White House and Senate, many Republicans were elated when they won control of the House and had the votes to elect John Boehner as speaker.

Many experts had predicted it would take years for the Republican Party to rebuild after its decisive loss in the 2008 election and the political damage it suffered in the final years of President George W. Bush's administration.

With great power, however, comes great responsibility, as one famous comic book made clear to America.

The next two years will shine the political spotlight back on the Republican Party. Now that the GOP is not just the opposition party, Republicans will face the burden of having to demonstrate to voters what they are all about in the post-Bush era and what they would do if they regain full control of Washington.

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While the 2012 election will hinge on the performance of President Obama, the next Republican presidential candidate will be scrutinized based on what his or her party has looked like under Boehner.

There are several important questions that voters will think about as they evaluate the Ohio Republican and his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

The first is the role of fiscal conservatism within the Republican Party. Tea Party candidates made the problem of the federal deficit and the promise of balanced budgets a priority in their campaigns.

Responding to grass-roots activists, many candidates promised that they would do what was necessary to get the nation's fiscal house back in order. As Boehner said in his inaugural speech, "Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt will soon eclipse the size of our entire economy. ... No longer can we kick the can down the road."

Unfortunately for Republicans, the historical record is not great. Since the 1960s, Republican presidents have not followed through on their promises to balance the budget. The only Republican president to take a serious stab at reducing the deficit was George H.W. Bush, who agreed to raise taxes in exchange for spending cuts in 1990. As a result, he was virtually excommunicated by conservatives.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have not had much more luck, other than during the late 1990s when President Clinton and the GOP benefited from the revenue generated by a skyrocketing economy.

While there have been many reasons behind the failure of Republicans to balance the budget, ranging from the political difficulty of cutting domestic programs to the decision to prioritize tax cuts and military spending, the outcome has been the same. Balanced budgets have been more of a campaign slogan than a governing agenda.

The second, and related, question is whether Republicans can realistically achieve domestic spending cuts. When Republicans have decided to directly attack domestic programs, they have often failed to achieve their goal.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan proposed cuts in Social Security benefits. Democrats mobilized in response, and the backlash forced the president to back down. When the Republican Congress pushed for Medicare cuts and other reductions in the federal budget in 1995, resulting in a temporary shutdown of the federal government when President Clinton refused to accept their demands, public opinion turned against the GOP.

Republicans were able to restrain spending in certain areas during the next few years, but, overall, the budget kept growing. The story would repeat itself under President George W. Bush. In 2005, Bush's proposal to privatize Social Security went down in flames despite Republican control of Congress.

The next two years will shine the political spotlight back on the Republican Party.
--Julian E. Zelizer

It is unclear whether the political environment has changed dramatically. The truth is that Americans continue to oppose government, but they like government programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Even with health care, negative polls about government intervention in health care are balanced out by public support for specific components of the legislation.

The new Republican majority, before it had even started, has conceded that it will have trouble fulfilling its promise in "A Pledge to America" to cut at least $100 billion out of next year's budget.

The final question about the GOP under Boehner's leadership is whether Republicans can ever be the party of change in Washington. During his speech, Boehner said that "our aim will be to give government back to the people" and he promised to "part with some of the rituals that have come to characterize this institution under majorities Republicans and Democratic alike."

These kinds of promises, however, are a difficult sell. After all, the anti-politics message has sounded hollow ever since the 1980s -- and Republicans have enjoyed the fruits of political power during much of these three decades. The costs of power to the GOP became clear during President Bush's time in Washington, when a series of scandals revolving around Republican ties to the lobbying community as well as cases where members abused congressional power helped bring down the majority in 2006.

Indeed, the Tea Party movement was as much a rebellion against the Republican establishment as it was a rebellion against President Obama. The movement has been very clear in calling on candidates to change the way Washington works. But accomplishing that goal will be extraordinarily difficult. Substantive government reform is not on the agenda.

Most of the Republican leadership, including Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are Washington veterans who are quite comfortable operating within the existing system. Even many younger Republicans raised some eyebrows when they attended a lavish party in a posh Washington hotel, along with some of the city's most powerful lobbyists and corporate donors.

The next few years will tell us a lot about the character of the Republican Party and the governing priorities of its leaders. Voters will be watching the GOP closely.

The ways in which the Republican Party responds to these challenges will play an important role in defining what kind of political party Republican candidates will be able to champion in 2012 -- and what kind of party President Obama will be able to attack on the campaign trail.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.