Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."
(CNN) -- In 2013, the Republican Party faces a big test. Members begin the new year in disarray, with their public approval ratings plummeting while Democrats still control the White House and Senate. The year is coming to a close with an embarrassing display of legislative ineptitude as House Republicans divided over a solution to the fiscal cliff.
Without displaying the capacity for strong leadership, political parties can't succeed. Voters want parties that can get the nation out of trouble, not push them deeper into a hole. The GOP primaries were filled with aged political actors and oddballs who had trouble convincing Republican voters that they could really handle the presidency. Mitt Romney was the Republican choice by default. He never exhibited the kind of gravitas or inspiration for which voters look.
In Congress, the problem for the GOP is even worse.
In the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner has had almost no success keeping his troops in line. He has led a Republican Caucus that continues to drag down the image of Congress and create the impression that Republicans can't handle the responsibilities of power. The past two years of his leadership have revolved around the constant collapse of budgetary negotiations.
House Republicans have used the once-routine decision over raising the debt ceiling as a tool of blackmail against the White House. Each time, the speaker has failed to bring Republicans to agreement, leaving the negotiations with Democrats in disarray. The situation became so bad that Congress and the White House agreed to impose stringent fiscal action automatically if Congress could not take action themselves. That's why we face a fiscal cliff.
Nor has Boehner displayed the kind of bold courage that would be needed to break with his own party and enter into a bipartisan deal with Democrats. This was the kind of action that President George H.W. Bush was willing to take in 1990, a decision that cost him huge support. The result is a political cliff, more than a fiscal cliff, where one of the parties makes legislating impossible.
In the Senate, the leadership has been more effective under Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but only as a force of opposition. McConnell has served as a battering ram against the Democratic majority, using the power of the filibuster to hold up appointments and tie the Democrats' agenda into knots. But leadership that is good only at saying no rarely inspires -- it's about preserving gains rather than creating ideas.
Even at the grass roots, conservative leaders allied with the GOP have not done well in recent weeks.
In the wake of the shootings in Connecticut, the National Rifle Association, a major voice in conservative politics, responded by calling for more guns in the schools, just in the hands of the good guys, rather than on restrictions on the weapons used in this kind of carnage. As Republicans struggle to find common ground with Democrats over the budget, conservative leaders have generally been unyielding in their resistance to tax increases on most wealthy Americans, one that defies American political history and budgetary realism, to the point of making a deal impossible.
While the role of movement organizers is always to push their allies toward ideological purity, effective leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. also understood that elected officials needed the space to enter into deals so that decisions could be made.
Great parties are always able to find great transformative leaders. Democrats, despite a miserable economy that lasted through World War II and being deeply divided along regional lines, found Franklin Roosevelt. He brought the factions of his own party together, moving government toward breakthrough deals and guiding the nation toward points of unity.
In the 1940s and '50s, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn did the same, finding the points where Southern and Northern Democrats could agree, and even brought some Republicans along. Ronald Reagan moved competing factions into one tent for the GOP in the 1980s, as did congressional leaders such as Kansas Sen. Robert Dole, who broke through politics to find compromises on issues such as tax hikes.
Today, Republicans don't have those kinds of leaders, and the public is not responding well. While there are many names being floated about for future elections, such as Bobby Jindal and Jeb Bush, the verdict is out as to how they would handle the intense pressures of national office.
Republicans will need to show that their leadership won't simply perpetuate the gridlock in Washington.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.