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 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT