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Are Republicans fumbling the ball?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
December 22, 2011 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate MInority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared together at a news conference July 30, 2011 on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate MInority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared together at a news conference July 30, 2011 on Capitol Hill.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: GOP was set for a strong showing in 2012 elections
  • He says handling of the payroll tax cut extension hurts their chances
  • People think their candidate is more Goldwater than Reagan, he says
  • Zelizer: GOP pre-primary season is dominated by negative campaigning

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and author of the forthcoming book "Governing America" (Princeton University Press).

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Every football fan knows the feeling of watching his or her favorite team implode as a result of mistakes. Even when the odds of victory are good, turnovers and penalties can kill any hope within minutes.

The Republicans might become one of those teams. The GOP goes into the 2012 election in relatively good shape. The laggard economy and rising deficit have placed President Barack Obama and Democratic candidates in a vulnerable position.

Voters are angry, frustrated, and skeptical about the status quo. Nor are Obama's fans particularly enthusiastic. Though most Democrats remain loyal to the home team, some of them might not show up on game day and others will come without much enthusiasm to cheer and yell.

Yet as the election begins, self-inflicted wounds are weakening Republican chances for a victory. Most important, House Republicans are playing to the extremes of their party and refusing to cut deals on routine matters such as the extension of unemployment compensation and a payroll tax cut.

The Wall Street Journal lamented, "Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter, although he's spent most of his presidency promoting tax increases and he would hit the economy with one of the largest tax increases ever in 2013. This should be impossible."

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

While Republican presidential candidates have their eyes focused on moderate and independent voters, House Republicans from safe seats are primarily concerned about warding off any potential conservative Republican primary challengers by playing to the base. The collapse of the payroll tax cut extension deal revealed how dug in House Republicans are and the difficulties Speaker John Boehner faces in maintaining control of his caucus. The party of Grover Norquist is about to allow taxes to go up on the middle class.

The actions of House Republicans are opening the party up to the dual charges of extremism and obstructionism — charges that are likely campaign themes for next fall.

Democrats will try to depict Republicans as the party of Barry Goldwater rather than of Ronald Reagan. Goldwater was the Arizona senator who ran against President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and was overwhelmingly defeated because voters concluded he was too far right to be in charge of the country. Although a vote for a Republican for president isn't the same as a vote for the House Republicans, their actions go a long way in defining what the party is about and how it will conduct business in Washington.

Republican candidate Newt Gingrich should be most sensitive to the costs of these events. He and the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, but the following years were tough politically.

Even though President Bill Clinton was on the ropes and it seemed that Republicans were on their way to controlling the White House, the fortunes of the GOP went south. When House Republicans were unwilling to cut a deal on the budget in 1995 and 1996, the public turned against them.

Voters who were not diehard conservatives started to question whether the party could handle the responsibility that came with power. Speaker Gingrich quickly went from being seen as a conservative visionary to being seen as a leader unable to handle his own caucus. All of this opened up space for Clinton to move to the center and capture voters who might otherwise have veered toward the right. By the 1996 election, Republicans had lost much of their luster as a result of what took place on Capitol Hill.

The Republicans also had trouble finding a stellar candidate. The party turned to the person who was next in line to run, Robert Dole, a respected Kansas senator. Dole worked hard to overcome the intransigence of the House Republicans, unsuccessfully many concluded, and he didn't hold much appeal to the nation. Dole seemed like a candidate from another generation, someone who didn't have much of a plan for the future as much as a memory of the past. "This country's future," Clinton said in one commercial, "will be even brighter than its brilliant past." With the economy starting to take off, Clinton was well positioned to win re-election.

Although Republicans in 2011 are not simply making the mistake of handing the nomination to whoever is next in line, they have engaged in a Don Quixote search for the perfect candidate, rather than for a candidate who can just win. The result has been an increasingly brutal primary season (before the primaries even begin) with Republicans doing the legwork and negative advertising that would otherwise be left to the Democratic opposition.

The good news for the Republicans is that the game is still early and there is a lot of time left on the clock. But unless they can stop making these kinds of political mistakes -- mistakes that can prove extremely costly by the fall -- they might end up allowing a vulnerable incumbent to enjoy an easier victory than most expected.

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

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