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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Intra-Conservative Defense Spending Battle Begins

One of those shoes you just knew would eventually have to drop was some exposure of the massive contradiction between conservative Republican militancy about federal spending and that party’s tradition of support for open-ended defense spending and aggressive military interventions around the world.
But while it would have been predictable if this latent conflict had been brought to light by someone like Rand Paul, who has never made a secret of his neo-isolationist foreign policy views, it now appears that Haley Barbour, of all people, is making it a calling card for his own likely presidential campaign.
In a speech in Iowa guaranteed to attract maximum attention, this most conventional of GOP pols went out of his way to attack the idea that defense spending should be off the table in deficit reduction efforts, and specifically suggested the U.S. consider winding down its troop levels in Afghanistan.
Dramatizing Barbour’s heresy, Tim Pawlenty promptly went out of his way in South Carolina to oppose significant defense cuts or any reconsideration of the Afghanistan commitment. At least two other probable 2012 presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have long been on record calling for higher defense spending and a more confrontational foreign policy towards states like Iran and North Korea. And another right-wing luminary, Sarah Palin, once offered to take up the mission of convincing her admirers in the Tea Party Movement to exempt the Pentagon from any budget-cutting exercise.
Now it’s entirely possible Barbour’s gambit and the reaction to it will turn out to be smoke and mirrors, reflecting a desire to dominate a news cycle or two rather than any serious interest in defying the neocon wing of the Republican Establishment or the long-settled Republican habit of encouraging a foreign policy based on threats of military intervention and little else. But even a token gesture in that direction could be politically significant, much like Mike Huckabee’s 2008 effort to distinguish himself from other Republicans by refusing to celebrate the Bush Economy as a total success, or hail Wall Street as an unambiguous source of economic and moral virtue. Like Huckabee on the economy, Barbour may fail to follow through with any truly heterodox thoughts on foreign policy and defense.
But the next few days of reaction to Barbour’s speech will be interesting. If nothing else, it shows he’s not planning on running for president purely on the basis of his fundraising power, his lobbying skills, or his claims of having turned Mississippi into an economic dynamo.

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