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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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