Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

GOP faces choice: Leadership or gridlock

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
December 31, 2012 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
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
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT