Julian E. Zelizer: GOP Leaders, Beware the Newcomers

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of Jimmy Carter by Times Books, Arsenal of Democracy by Basic Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush’s administration by Princeton University Press.]

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....

Republicans have...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."...

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....
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