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) -- John Boehner has a huge problem on his hands. Now that the elections are over, and Republicans were victorious, he will need to tame the passions of the GOP freshmen who are coming to town determined to change everything about the way that Washington works.
If he does not, the Republicans could divide among themselves, thereby undercutting their ability to push forward legislation and giving President Obama an opportunity to challenge their competence.
Democrats have recently been nostalgic about the 1994 midterms, arguing that the Republican takeover of the House and Senate ironically gave President Clinton the opportunity to shift toward the center and to make the GOP a symbol of partisan extremism. As I argued in a recent column, that memory washes away the bitter partisan battles that consumed much of Clinton's second term in office, culminating with his impeachment.
Republicans have also been looking back to 1994. Many have compared 2010 to 1994. The conservative revolution is alive and well, they say, as Republicans now effectively control the legislative branch, given that 60 votes are needed to get most big bills through the Senate. Republicans anticipate that the election has offered them a base from which to attack Obama's policies and to set up for the 2012 race.
But then-Speaker Newt Gingrich discovered that huge midterm victories come at a high price. Gingrich had been working with conservative activists for years, pushing the Republican Party to move much further toward the right and to avoid replicating what, he said, were the corrupt practices of Democrats.
The freshmen Republicans elected in 1994 came to Washington prepared to do battle. They were in no mood to compromise. From the start, the strategy was to depend on the 73 freshmen as a solid voting block to counteract Clinton. Ed Gillespie, a spokesman for then-Majority Leader Richard Armey, said, "There's a strong synthesis between the freshmen and the sophomores and the House Republican leadership."
But the freshmen proved difficult to control and often caused immense problems for the leadership. When Louisiana's Robert Livingston tried to remove first-year Wisconsin member Mark Neumann from the defense appropriations subcommittee, the freshmen intimidated Gingrich into overriding Livingston.
In 1995, the GOP decided to use omnibus budget legislation to pass a bold package of spending and tax cuts as well as a historic reform of Medicare and Medicaid. The Republicans promised that cuts would balance the budget by 2002. The reconciliation measure passed 237-189 in the House, with one Republican opposing the package and five Democrats supporting it, and 52-47 in the Senate, with no Democratic support and one Republican opponent.
Despite his inclination to compromise, Clinton's advisers persuaded the president to oppose the package. Facing intense pressure from the freshmen to hold the line, Gingrich was reminded of the limits of his authority, as he was unable to persuade the freshmen to back down and lower their demands on spending cuts. The rebels were now in control of the party. As Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos later recalled: "The freshmen had become Newt's Frankenstein monster -- and my best friend. The more they dug in, the better off we were."
Clinton relied on television news and advertisements to attack the GOP for undermining Medicare to finance upper-income tax cuts. Medicare is an example of a benefit Americans often strongly supported even while expressing their displeasure toward government in general.
Gingrich's hands were tied. He understood the political consequences of Republican intransigence. When Clinton vetoed a few reconciliation bills, the partisan struggle resulted in several shutdowns of the federal government between October 1995 and January 1996. The media focused on the government services that were affected, with images of frustrated tourists at the National Zoo with their families and people unable to obtain visas for honeymoons.
The public turned on the GOP. During the conflict, the speaker even lost the support of conservative Democrats when he refused to budge.
The freshmen would not back down. As the speaker explained, the freshmen "really think this is life and death for their country, and think their careers are trivial in the balance; and mean it with total sincerity. They don't regard being defeated as the end of their life, just a change in their jobs."
This stance troubled many Senate Republicans -- including future presidential candidate Robert Dole, who had a stake in being productive and had spent much of his career seeking bipartisan compromises. Many voters, especially the elderly, were outraged by the proposed cuts in Medicare.
Clinton co-opted their position by accepting legislation to balance the budget in seven years. After one final prolonged shutdown, the GOP closed on a deal under pressure from Dole.
The entire battle had disastrous effects on the GOP. The party lost much of the political capital it gained with the midterm, and many observers questioned Gingrich's skill as a leader. These tensions would play out during the rest of the decade, as the class of 1994 continued to push their party into a highly adversarial and aggressive stance toward the White House, culminating with the impeachment.
Republicans will face similar pressure in the year ahead. Indeed, the day after the election, on CNN.com, one Tea Party activist warned the GOP: "If Republicans misread the intent of the American voter and are as fiscally reckless as they were during the Bush years, they soon will find themselves packing their bags and being replaced by a new crop of leaders who understand America will no longer tolerate reckless spending and misguided fiscal policies."
Moreover, the new Republicans will be able to exert even greater pressure than the class of 1994 because they have a more sophisticated media platform, which combines cable TV, the Internet and radio, to get their message out, instantly, with or without the approval of the leadership.
Just as Democrats would do well to remember that life wasn't so great for Clinton after 1994, even with his high approval rates, Republicans would do the same to recall how a massive opportunity was wasted and ultimately consumed some of its own leaders.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.