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 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT