Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

If spending is cut, GOP will get the blame

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
February 26, 2013 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT