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 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT