Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

GOP faces choice: Leadership or gridlock

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:49 AM EST, Mon December 31, 2012
House Speaker John Boehner has been unable to keep his troops in line, says Julian Zelizer.
House Speaker John Boehner has been unable to keep his troops in line, says Julian Zelizer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Republican Party faces a big test in 2013, says Julian Zelizer
  • Without displaying a capacity for strong leadership, political parties can't succeed, he says
  • House Speaker John Boehner has been unable to keep his troops in line, says Zelizer
  • Zelizer: Boehner has not displayed the courage to enter into a deal with Democrats

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.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

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.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT