Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

GOP strategy on shutdown courts doom

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 8:07 AM EDT, Mon September 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Republicans are on a suicidal course on budget issues
  • He says forcing a government shutdown or a debt limit crisis would harm an already weakened GOP image
  • Zelizer: If Republicans want to win public support, they need to debate spending without manufacturing crises

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) -- Now that there is a respite in the debate in Congress over Syria, the budget wars are resuming. Regardless of how tired the public has become of watching the parties wrangle over spending levels, congressional Republicans have made it clear that they intend to keep the pressure on the president.

The first round of the fight will come with the decision over whether to extend the continuing resolution to fund the government beyond its expiration date of September 30.

House Republican leaders have already been forced to delay the vote because Tea Party Republicans have threatened to vote no. They are demanding that the bill shut down funding for the new health care law, a key part of which goes in effect on October 1.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The second round of the fight will take place in October, when Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling so that the federal government can meet its obligations.

Republican leaders have said that in exchange for their votes on both measures, the administration will have to agree to steep cuts in domestic spending.

As they have been doing since 2010, Republicans want to use these budget battles to depict themselves as the party of "fiscal responsibility" and to sway public opinion wars toward a national agenda that centers on reducing the size of domestic programs.

Government shutdown threat looms

Based on what we've seen thus far, the strategy will not work over the long term. While the GOP has been successful at preventing President Obama from dealing with other issues -- and now these debates can help put such issues as immigration reform at risk by pushing them off the legislative schedule -- their overall strategy can diminish public support for deficit reduction.

Nor is it likely to make Republicans look like the responsible party of fiscal conservatism.

Why won't it work? Republicans have chosen to fight over spending cuts through dramatic high stakes maneuvers, such as shutting down the federal government or refusing to raise the debt ceiling that raise more questions about their party than about the issue at hand.

Q&A: The lowdown on the shutdown

The Republicans have watched as public opinion has turned against them. According to a recent CNN poll, 51% of those surveyed would blame the Republicans for a government shutdown.

By dealing with budgetary issues through these risky tactics, which some say threaten the economy, the party hurts its ability to persuade the public that the Republicans are interested in seriously pursuing fiscal restraint, as opposed to using this issue for purely partisan purposes.

Not only does this strategy raise questions about the Republicans as a party, but it makes the issue of spending cuts appear more like a weapon than a topic of discussion.

The Republicans have also harmed their cause through their long-standing inconsistency about achieving fiscal responsibility.

Conservatives have been pointing to this problem for over a decade, as many had lambasted President George W. Bush as a "Big Government Conservative" who supported expansions of government such as the Medicare prescription drug program.

In the past two years, Republican proposals have concentrated most heavily on spending cuts for programs serving the disadvantaged while simultaneously promoting tax cuts that would only worsen the fiscal imbalance that the nation faces. By doing so, Republican arguments about fiscal conservatism have seemed more like an attack on the poor than a desire to balance the budget.

Obama has tried to capitalize on this perception. On ABC, he said, "There's no serious economist out there that would suggest that, if you took the Republican agenda of slashing education further, slashing Medicare further, slashing research and development further, slashing investments in infrastructure further, that would reverse some of these trends of inequality."

Nor have Republicans done much to respond to the growing data that deficit reduction does little to help the economy.

New research has cast great doubt on an economics paper that has been cited around the globe by champions of austerity in public spending. Spending cuts in European nations have not produced the economic results promised -- in fact the opposite -- and that has also shaken supporters of the GOP here at home.

Yet, Republicans have not offered much of a response, other than to stick to their pre-existing script. Republicans will need to do more to counteract this growing evidence about the flaws of their arguments.

There was a time when Republicans could legitimately claim to be the party of fiscal conservatism. President Dwight D. Eisenhower made balancing the budget one of his signature issues, devoting much of his second term fighting against all kinds of spending, including on the military, against the Democratic Congress.

While he was unsuccessful, Democrats and Republicans, as well as large number of voters, respected his belief in the program and the fact that he was willing to take political risks to fight for this policy.

If Republicans want to regain some of what Eisenhower achieved for the party, and to win over skeptics who are doubting whether deficit reduction really should be the kind of priority issue that Republicans say it should be, they will have to change course.

Starting in the coming weeks, they might want to begin by avoiding a government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling so that they can argue their case in a way that has a chance of persuading more Americans to back their ideas and their party.

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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 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 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 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 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
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