Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why GOP doesn't want a 'grand bargain'

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Republicans may be wary of a grand bargain to cut deficit
  • He says their party is unified by the defining theme of fighting against deficits
  • Many in GOP are also aware entitlement cuts are unpopular in red states, he says
  • Zelizer: To reach a bargain, GOP would have to accept more tax revenue increases

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."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- At the three-day Conservative Political Action Convention this weekend, Republicans spent a lot of time attacking President Obama's budgetary policies and demanding that their party insist on dramatic deficit reduction.

Congressman Paul Ryan, with an eye toward 2016, warned that, "Our debt is a threat to this country. We have to tackle this problem before it tackles us. So today, I want to make the case for balance. That case, in a nutshell, is that a balanced budget will promote a healthier economy."

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

But for many reasons, Republicans don't really want a "grand bargain" over deficit reduction.

For all the talk coming out of the GOP about their desire to pressure President Obama into accepting a deal that makes a serious dent in the federal deficit, all the political incentives point in a different direction for the party of Ronald Reagan.

Deficit reduction is one of those issues that the party likes to talk about more than it has an interest in actually tackling.

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.



Why is this the case? Most importantly, Republicans would lose the issue that has defined them in an era of internal division. Republicans have made deficit reduction their major theme since the 2010 elections.

After a period when the party seemed to be in a deep state of disarray following the election of President Obama, who was chosen by a public that strongly disapproved of President George W. Bush, Republicans came roaring back by talking about how much the administration was spending and the short-term, as well as long-term, imbalance between revenue and expenditures.

Deficit reduction has proven to be to Republicans what anti-communism used to be in the 1980s, a common theme that holds together the various factions of the conservative movement under one umbrella.

Ryan budget blowback
Hear the best zingers from CPAC

Without deficit reduction at the forefront of their rhetoric, the divisions of Republicans are easy to see: neoconservatives versus realists on foreign policy; social conservatives versus libertarians; proponents of immigration reform and hard-line anti-immigration activists; fiscal conservatives versus supply side-economics and more. If deficit reduction loses its salience as an issue as a result of a deal between the president and Congress, Republicans will have less to unite over and more time to fight among themselves.

President Obama faces the opportunity to do what President Bill Clinton did to the congressional GOP in 1996 when he signed onto a historic welfare reform bill, stealing away one of the main issues that the GOP had used to attack Democrats for decades.

If President Obama entered into some kind of major budget deal, and if the economy's recovery speeded up, thus bringing more revenue to the federal government, the president could easily find himself like his predecessor in the late 1990s, when a Democratic president was able to move beyond existing political divisions while claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility and potentially boast of short-term surpluses.

Deficit reduction would be painful for the GOP because actually accomplishing this goal would require Congress to accept some kind of revenue increase. Most experts agree that no matter how many spending cuts were implemented, eliminating deficits would actually require some combination of tax increases and loophole-closing reforms.

Paul Ryan's proposals have come under intense criticism, with many economists saying that the numbers just don't add up. Given that Republicans have embraced an anti-tax fundamentalism, that was only slightly dented with the decision to allow tax cuts for the very highest income Americans to expire, a genuine deficit reduction deal would surely go against the party's fiscal orthodoxy.

If President Obama were to agree to a grand bargain that included deep cuts in entitlement spending, Republicans understand that the political blowback against their party could be intense.

Even as liberal Democrats and senior groups would criticize the president for entering into such an agreement, seasoned Republicans have been around long enough to understand that elderly voters in red states and districts would feel the pain of reductions to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The nation has already seen a number of key Republican governors (Rick Scott in Florida, John Kasich in Ohio, Chris Christie in New Jersey) backing away from their threats to reject federal Medicaid money that is part of the Affordable Health Care Act.

Recent social science research has shown how many conservatives, including Tea Party activists, strongly support federal programs for the elderly. These are not just benefits that are treasured in Democratic constituencies. The political backlash from Republican voters against substantive cuts as proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan could be severe.

So for all the talk about Ryan's budget and the need to put President Obama's feet to the fire, the Republicans are in a political quandary: many in the GOP don't actually want something that they are demanding.

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 11:30 PM EST, Sun December 28, 2014
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT