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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Breakthrough On Defense Budget?

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates first unvelied a series of extensive weapons system curtailments and cancellations in the context of the Pentagon’s 2010 budget submission, there was a fair amount of eye-rolling from beltway veterans who knew how well-insulated such systems were in Congress via wide dispersion of manufacturing sites and careful protection of the status quo by senior figures in both Houses–not to mention the lobbying clout of the military-industrial complex.
Now, less than a month later, there are preliminary signs that Gates may win many of his fights over weapons systems. Here’s how Julian Barnes of the Chicago Tribune assesses the current state of play:

Gates and the Obama administration were expected to encounter organized opposition from Defense Department contractors, local officials and Congress. But nearly three weeks after Gates’ dramatic proposal, the lobbyists and lawmakers have been uncharacteristically quiet.
“My general perception is that Gates is going to get his way for 90 percent of these decisions,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
Analysts credit the relative calm to the strategy used by Gates. He imposed strict Pentagon secrecy, even making aides and commanders sign non-disclosure agreements, and announced the plan as Congress started on a two-week break. In addition, the proposals are seen as non-political and have bipartisan support.
So far, Gates has signaled he is not going to compromise easily. For instance, the defense secretary dismissed as wasteful a deal offered by one lawmaker to split a contract for new Air Force refueling tankers between two different companies — one favored by the lawmaker, the other by the defense chief.

Aside from the actual impact on U.S. national security, what’s significant about this development (if it sticks) is that Gates has managed to get people thinking and talking about the value of this or that weapons system or procurement program, instead of simply building a fence around the status quo, demanding more of the same, and denouncing anyone who doesn’t agree as “weak on defense.”
You may recall that the acceptance by Obama of Gates as at least a transition figure at the Pentagon was pretty controversial among progressives at first. Now it’s beginning to look like he will accomplish something that progressives and defense reformers have struggled with for years: saying “enough” or even “no” to proponents of well-established weapons systems. That could have a major impact down the road on the politics of national security.

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