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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT