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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Divided and Conquer? The GOP and the Defense Budget

This item is a guest post from Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network. The views therein are her own.
As a colleague and I have written previously for TDS, the GOP spent the summer using Islam-bashing to paper over a canyon-sized fissure on national security. But the word “fissur makes the problem sound neat and orderly, where what is going on beneath the surface is more of a free-for-all among old-fashioned realists, neocons, paleocons, Tea Partiers and libertarians.
Republicans can be found on at least two sides of every key national security issue we face — how to combat terrorism, how (and even whether) to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction, how to conduct the war in Afghanistan, how to cope with untraditional threats such as climate change, how to work with and/or hedge against China and other ascendant powers. There is Senator McCain vs. Chairman Steele on Afghanistan; Senator Lugar vs. Governor Romney on arms control; Governor Palin vs. both Rand and Ron Paul on counter-terrorism.
Perhaps most fascinating – and most interesting for progressives thinking ahead to the problem of getting anything done in 2011 – is the crumbling of GOP unity on issues that have, in the past, been among the party’s biggest rhetorical cudgels. And it’s hard to think of a bigger one of those than the defense budget.
At a time when the Tea Party Movement has helped revive demands from the Right for a balanced federal budget, the largest single element of discretionary government spending is our defense budget. Its unfettered growth since 9-11 has left some inside the Pentagon, as well as many outside, uncomfortable; meanwhile, that growth has left key needs of our troops on the ground unfunded.
A number of centrist, conservative and libertarian defense intellectuals – such as Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution and Ben Friedman and Chris Preble of the CATO Institute — have spoken out in favor of spending cuts. They’ve been joined by mainstream media commentators such as TIME’s Fareed Zakaria (formerly of Newsweek). In Congress, Representatives Barney Frank and Ron Paul launched earlier this year a bipartisan Sustainable Defense Task Force (in which this author participated), which prepared a menu of $1 trillion in potential cuts over ten years. Against this backdrop, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has launched an initiative to rein in, if not actually reduce, overall spending.
That effort has produced anxiety in the military and consternation among some GOP thought leaders such as David Frum, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. In the neoconservative wing of the GOP, support not only for existing defense spending, but for increased spending pegged to GDP growth, regardless of the threat landscape, is an article of faith.
Even in a time of pinched budgets, the time-tested GOP arguments remain for unscrutinized high defense spending. The Heritage Foundation wonders, “Should the defense of their freedom be sacrificed to liberal lawmakers’ pet causes and to runaway automatic spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?” The Wall Street Journal editorial page posits that, “We learned on 9/11 that 3% isn’t nearly enough to maintain our commitments and fight a war on terror.” (As though a few more battleships or more nuclear weapons would have prevented 9/11.)
But how does the GOP square this circle with the parts of the party whose main focus is scaling back government and reducing the deficit? The same way they’ve addressed all the other internecine squabbles: intro Sarah Palin. As Josh Rogin has written, Palin is the “Tea Party’s Hawk.” Her message is this: When it comes to scaling back government, everything is on the table — except defense spending of course. That massaged position is an example of why Palin–or “Palinism”–is the glue that bonds the neocons and the more libertarian, deficit-conscious Tea Partiers together on defense spending. Palin’s position, though, is antithetical, or should be, to the libertarians and deficit hawks.
The specifics of the neocon defense budget position provides a ripe opportunity to incense the deficit hawks: Since neocons want to peg defense spending to a certain percentage of GDP, they’re essentially calling for an ever-expanding budget – not just refusing to cut the budget but a legislated, entitled, ever-increasing block of spending, Medicare for the Pentagon. By the unavoidable arithmetic of the federal budget, that means major and unpopular cuts in the actual Medicare program, along with radical changes in other strongly popular domestic priorities from Social Security to environmental protection, particularly at a time when Republicans not only oppose tax increases but are demanding new tax cuts.
Smart GOP strategists know that the contradictions between their positions on defense spending and the budget deficit make them vulnerable. Perhaps recognizing that anti-spending works much better as rhetoric than reality, Republicans did block Congress from creating a Deficit Reduction Commission, which the President ultimately created instead by executive order, but with merely the power to recommend. Reflexive GOP support for ever-higher defense spending is gradually coming underassault from within by Republicans Rep. Walter Jones and Sen. Tom Coburn, among others. When and if specific cuts are proposed, Members of Congress can be expected to engage in ugly bipartisan food-fighting to protect their local prerogatives. And this will only further confuse the GOP deficit-cutting message.
A muddied message from the extreme factions of the GOP will set the stage for a genuinely bipartisan effort to lead on principle and put Pentagon spending in a framework constrained both by our economic circumstances and the objectives we as a society wish to use our military to accomplish – both areas in which public opinion puts neoconservatives at a disadvantage and blunts arguments they have traditionally used on Democrats. It will also further dishearten libertarians, old-fashioned conservatives who favor a smaller military footprint, and Tea-Party-esque supporters who are dismayed by government bloat, waste and corruption wherever it resides.
Of course, there is an alternative – that GOP strategists recognize the perils of their conflicting positions, , and create a situation wherein the two parties find themselves competing to capture the experts and reform and rationalize our Pentagon spending. After all, the 60th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s farewell warning against the excesses of a military-industrial complex arrives next January–not a bad time to start taking it seriously.

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