James Carville, the former aide to Bill Clinton, recently summed up the GOP's problem with the sequester — $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that took effect last week — this way: "The sequester, many people don't know what it is," he told NBC. "But it sounds stupid and cruel, so they think it's a Republican thing."

Fairly or not, polls bear out Carville's pithy assessment. And the GOP's image has only hardened in recent weeks, with Republicans rejecting President Obama's plea to replace the sequester with a balance of entitlement cuts and taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations. While Democrats have sought to underscore the impact the sequester will have on middle- and lower-income Americans, many Republicans have dismissed such warnings as wildly overblown. But local administrators for federal aid programs say the cuts could do real damage to poor Americans, according to Annie Lowrey at The New York Times:

Unless a deal is reached to change the course of the cuts, housing programs would be hit particularly hard, with about 125,000 individuals and families put at risk of becoming homeless, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated. An additional 100,000 formerly homeless people might be removed from emergency shelters or other housing arrangements because of the cuts, the agency said…

"These people are very, very, very poor," said Sheila Crowley, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, speaking of recipients of federal housing support across the country. "They don’t have resources to fall back on"…

Other programs that assist low-income families face similarly significant cuts, including one that delivers hot meals to the elderly and another that helps pregnant women. Policy experts are particularly concerned about cuts to the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC, which provides food and baby formula for at-risk families.

It is considered one of the most effective social programs in government, reducing anemia and increasing birth weights. But up to 775,000 low-income women and their children might lose access to or be denied that aid because of the mandatory cuts, according to calculations by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group. [The New York Times]

Seeking to put pressure on the GOP, the Democratic National Committee has already released a web video that juxtaposes Republican leaders dismissing the damage of the sequester with local news reports highlighting the concerns of average voters. The ad ends with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) proclaiming, "I got 98 percent of what I wanted; I'm pretty happy."

It's not just the sequester. Republican governors, for example, have recently come under fire from their conservative brethren for expanding Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled. As Paul Krugman at The New York Times writes, the controversy over the Medicaid expansion, a key component of ObamaCare, bolsters the impression that for Republicans "it's all about comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted, about giving more to those who already have a lot."

Republicans, of course, see the matter quite differently, arguing that their policies would free individuals to lift themselves out of poverty. But a growing chorus of conservatives argues that the Republican Party's focus on spending cuts and taxes are not resonating with middle- and lower-income votes. In a recent manifesto in Commentary titled "How to Save the Republican Party," Bush administration veterans Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner laid out a new economic agenda that stresses social mobility over tax orthodoxy. And Arthur C. Brooks, writing in The Wall Street Journal this week, is even blunter about the GOP's problem:

In his best-selling 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, [social psychologist Jonathan] Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority — to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis — resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country's growing entitlement spending, don't register morally at all.

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100 percent public support — care for the vulnerable — to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints. [The Wall Street Journal]

The problem, however, is that as the party fractures over immigration, the Medicaid expansion, and social issues like gay marriage, a hard line on spending and taxes may be one of the few issues around which Republicans can coalesce. As Richard W. Stevenson writes in The New York Times:

Four months after Mr. Obama won a second term, the only issue that truly unites Republicans is a commitment to shrinking the federal government through spending cuts, low taxes and less regulation. To have compromised again and agreed to further increase taxes or roll back spending cuts would have left Republicans deeply split and, many of them say, at risk of losing the core of the party’s identity. [The New York Times]