Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

If spending is cut, GOP will get the blame

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 11:14 AM EST, Tue February 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Washington's budget fight will grab public's attention if no deal reached
  • He says painful cuts will lead the public to blame Republicans for Washington's dysfunction
  • Americans don't like government spending in general but like specific programs, he says
  • Zelizer: GOP needs to rethink its reliance on deficit reduction as a prime strategy

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Until now "sequestration" has been a word that only means something to people living inside the Beltway or to political junkies who depend on their daily dose of Politico and The Hill. But if Congress and the president do not reach a deal by March 1, which appears likely, Americans will quickly learn what it means -- namely deep spending cuts.

The spending cuts pose a significant political threat to Republicans, more so than to Democrats. Although many Republicans are standing firm, insisting that their party will be fine if the cuts go through, there are many reasons for the GOP, through a sober eye, to see the dangers that lay ahead.

The cuts could push congressional politics in a liberal direction and establish the foundation for solid Democratic gains in 2014.

Last week Bob Woodward argued that President Obama was responsible for the sequester idea, not the Republicans. But while people are squabbling over who owns the sequester, the GOP will take the hit regardless.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The danger for Republicans is that the budget cuts will severely weaken public support for the austerity theme that the party has been promoting since 2010. The cuts will make "deficit reduction" something very real to average American citizens and business and something that is often quite painful rather than an abstract debate over numbers.

Opinion: One cuts, Washington throws a tantrum

While Americans have historically been hostile to government, they tend to support specific government services when asked by pollsters. So Washington's overall spending might not be popular as a concept, but Social Security and Medicare are.

The spending cuts will shift the debate toward the specifics. Americans will watch as government services are retrenched. The last time this happened, things didn't go well for the GOP.

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.



When the federal government shut down in 1995-1996 because of a budget standoff between Republicans and President Clinton, the GOP faced a huge backlash when Americans were unable to access basic government services, such as obtaining a passport or visiting the national zoo.

Opinion: The spending cut fairy tale

President Obama has already been using the bully pulpit to make this case, appearing with first responders and warning of how the cuts will impact police, hospitals, teachers, airline workers and more. Standing in front of a group of police officers, Obama said, "Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go." While these speeches are a form of political theater, they are based on very real possibilities.

The budget cuts that result from sequestration would just be the first of the threats the GOP faces. If the government has to shut down as a result of a standoff when the government's general operating budget expires in late March or the debt ceiling is not raised this spring, Republicans will continue to lose the public's confidence in their ability to govern and the reduction in services will highlight to Americans what the government actually does.

If the economy sputters as a result of the spending cuts, as some economists predict, deficit reduction will look even worse. An already frustrated workforce will become even more angry, and likely take out their frustration on a Republican Party that has been insisting deficit reduction should be the nation's short-term goal, rather than stimulating the economy.

Conservatives will suffer as the focus of congressional debate will quickly shift from the issue of spending cuts, where the emphasis has been since 2011, to the issue of spending more.

Once the cuts go through, frustration and anger with the impact on government services will certainly produce increased pressure on legislators in both parties to offer a fix, namely to restore spending to key areas.

Borger: Obama can't kick his legacy down the road

With legislators already thinking about the 2014 elections, this will be tempting. If this shift occurs, Republicans, who have invested so much in making fiscal discipline their top issue, will be operating in a congressional environment where the debates center around areas where the government needs to devote more government resources rather than less.

The automatic spending cuts are the ultimate symbol of a dysfunctional government. The reason the cuts were put into place was that President Obama and Congress were unable to reach an agreement on taxes and spending. Government leaders agreed to put a gun to their own head by threatening unpalatable cuts if they were unable to reach a deal. Now the trigger is about to be pulled.

The problem for Republicans is that the polls show that the approval rating of the GOP is in the tank while President Obama is doing relatively well. According to Quinnipiac University, only 19% of Americans approve of how Republicans are handling their job.

Obama is enjoying his highest favorability ratings since 2009, with 60% having a favorable rating of him in a Washington Post-ABC poll. The likelihood, as in 1995-1996, is that the public will blame the dysfunction on the GOP rather than Democrats and the party will suffer a further erosion of its standing as a result.

According to a recent poll by the Pew Foundation and USA Today, Republicans would be blamed for the cuts by almost half of Americans, while only 31% would blame Obama.

News: Top Senate Republican doubts damage from defense cuts

Sequestration will soon become a dirty word in the American political lexicon. While it is impossible to predict which way the political winds will blow, there is good reason for Republicans to see how they can suffer politically if some kind of deal is not reached.

Republicans, who have now struggled through two presidential elections and are facing a demographic shift that does not work in their favor, might want to start thinking harder about their strategy on spending. Deficit reduction is no longer a winning issue for the GOP.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:30 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT