Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

It seems to me that one of the biggest differences between the current budget battle and the budget wars of the past (specifically the 1980s through Bill Clinton's first term) is the extent to which that Democrats have accepted current levels of military spending. Yet my impression is that the underlying public opinion hasn't changed much: Democratic voters would support deep cuts in defense spending, while overall defense spending cuts are relatively a lot more popular than cuts to most domestic spending.

Why do you think Democrats are not demanding lower military spending? Is it, in your view, because Democratic policy elites have shifted their (honestly held) views? Is it because Democratic politicians are more afraid now (perhaps as a consequence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) of the political dangers of being "weak" on defense? Is it because of changes in the Democratic coalition? Changes in the relationship of Democratic politicians to military contracters? (Note on the latter two -- it has to be about changes, if it's producing a changed result). Some other reason?


  1. I was too young for the early Clinton budget wars, but I'd say it's worth looking into the idea that this is specifically Obama's budget. Democrats defending it (especially in the face of the truly terrible Republican alternative budgets) is to some extent understandable tribalism. So the real question would be why Obama's budget doesn't take an ax to the Pentagon, which I'm admittedly unsure of. Good question!

  2. I think it's fear that there will be another terrorist attack, which likely there will be, and Democrats will be blamed by Republicans even if they don't cut but especially if they do.

  3. I think Obama's playing for the grand budget compromise which means he can't be too explicit about his specific goals for fear of hardening opposition and sacrificing political cover. He needs the rest of the Democrats to play along to avoid making it an issue on Fox News. With even Republicans making noise about cutting the military, what would Obama have to gain for making it a centerpiece of his budget?

    A serious deficit reduction effort--which I'm hopeful we'll see soon--will require both sides to give each other cover for distasteful compromises.

  4. Military spending = stimulus; sure way for the executive branch to 'create' jobs.

  5. It seems to me to be part of a broader pattern where Democrats are are tired of being called weak, soft girly men and so have decided to abdicate on all the issues where that has been the traditional Republican attack line. So they have given up on gun control, crime and defense. They probably would have given up on gays had public support not been so strong for gay rights.

    I don't know whether the "weak" attack line is actually effective in changing public opinion, but I think that Democratic leaders got tired of it and their perception was probably that it was effective. So I think that in part giving up on defense is partly a tactical decision on how to position the party and co-opt voters that care passionately about the military. I think to some extent that this has been successful. I know that the area of Virginia where I grew up (Tidewater Va - the metropolitan area made up of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk) was always bright red as a result of being heavily dependent on the military both in terms of spending and population. To my shock, that area has been voting more purple recently, and I think it went for Obama in the last election.

    I think the other side of the coin is that there are always too many issues to pursue. Politicians have to make choices about priorities. Health care became the big push for national leaders. Trying to fix the Bush tax cut fiasco was the second priority. A distant third was gay rights. That pretty much took up all the space they had for issues. There are lots of other Democratic policy preferences, but none of them are getting much attention at the moment.

    It does seem to me that now that the budget is going to be the big issue that everyone has to pay attention to that the previous arguments for ignoring out of control defense spending become weaker. Maybe we will see some push towards cutting defense spending. However, Democratic leaders are obviously aware of the girly man pitfall in going after defense spending. They are also more aware than the average person of how difficult cutting defense is because of the way it is larded into every congressional district. They may just feel that attacking defense spending has too many downsides to their careers while being such a difficult problem that they can see only very small successes on the positive side.

  6. Certainly a compelling and legit question toward the liberal crowd. I tend to agree with Jim that it is in part due to a longstanding view of Dems as being weak when it comes to defense and foreign policy. At least that is the way the other side has painted it. Following 9/11 any effort to reduce military spending was probably viewed as certain political death. Now 10 years later the current deficit crisis and economic woes bring all spending into question - even military. It is not only a valid option in my opinion but a necessary one.

    In light of Sec. Robert Gates' recent remarks while at West Point about the future direction of the military, it seems obvious that there needs to be a complete change in the way we think about the structure and financing of our armed men and women (who are the finest in the world). Large scale operations need to transition to more specialized and specific operations targeting key terrorist groups and other threats to our security.

    An excerpt by Gates is as follows... "The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they army or marines, airborne, infantry or special operations is self evident, given the likelihood of counter-terrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response or stability or security force assistance missions," he said. "But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined."

    I highly doubt a more opportune time will present itself than in the next year or two for democrats to re-assert their case.

  7. As I understand things, the Dems back then hardly presented a unified front on military spending. Seems like guys like Nunn and Murtha and Boren rarely met a military appropriation they didn't like. So I'm not sold there's such a major change.

    But if there is, I'd blame the fear of being called weak. I don't think that's necessarily a reasonable fear (it's somewhere between not-really-a-concern and a concern-but-one-you-can-overcome), but it's there. But I'd also point to a few other things- the economic benefits of military spending in a fragile economy, a sophisticated legislative apparatus in the Pentagon (Gates, in particular, seems capable of playing the public, press, and politicians like a fiddle), and the Pentagon's feints toward responsibility (good cuts to wasteful programs, but not really cutting the budget) have probably spared it the axe for now.

    But I'm optimistic; the 9-11 syndrome has already faded so much, it can go further. Even the Pentagon seems to SAY it needs to be cut, so it can't hold the line forever. And it's hard to see how the next SecDef will be as politically capable as Gates. That's a lot of room to work with.

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  10. I think the Clinton event was the outlier. After the end of the cold war, but before public awareness of Islamic terrorism, we had a perceived opportunity to cash in a "peace dividend."

    In any other circumstance, cutting defense spending appears too "weak on defense" to be politically palatable.

  11. "Why do you think Democrats are not demanding lower military spending?"

    In the late 1940s and early '50's, Democrats in general and President Truman in particular, were savaged by Republicans for having "lost China" to communism. That had a profound effect on the party that had led America to victory in two world wars and arguably prevented a turn to socialism or communism in the Great Depression. I'm convinced the bitter memory of that and resolve to not be branded weak on communist aggression is why Lyndon Johnson got the country enmired in a no-win war in Vietnam.

    So, yes, fear of being branded weak on defense looms large in the Democratic mind. But there's much more to it.

    Democrats desperately need to produce jobs, not lose them, and they know it. Defense industries are spread all over the country. Cut defense spending heavily and you cut a lot of people out of their jobs. You send a lot of businesses to bankruptcy court.

    The impact is much greater now than in past decades because so much DoD and related work has been contracted out to private businesses and individuals. Also, because nowadays many defense industries are extremely specialized. You don't go overnight from R&D on laser weapons to producing coffee makers or from building battle tanks to building fire trucks. Especially not in a bad economy.

    Lastly, I think there's an awareness that just as in domestic infrastructure, a lot of catch-up work is needed for the military. The air tanker fleet is antiquarian. The bomber fleet is only marginally better. Changing types of threat surely require changes in doctrine, strategies and equipment. Much of that has been sidelined for various reasons, the biggest being our interminable no-win, money-pit Mideast wars.

  12. I suspect it's in part because Dems know the GOP trying to cut certain budget categories, not trying to cut deficits. Proposing defense cuts will not reduce the GOP effort to cut what they want to cut. Indeed, such proposals would add fuel to the budget-cutting fire.

  13. I think it is because, as Larry Bartels has shown, Democrats are indistinguishable from Republicans in the extent to which they cultivate and vote for the interests of big business. And defense is very big business indeed.

  14. It's not a policy shift. The whole idea that Dems are weak on defense is as baseless as the idea that Rethugs are fiscally responsible.

    It's probably true that Dems have historically been less profligate on defense spending than Rethugs.

    Defense spending/GDP has been in a fairly steady decline since the end of the Korean war in the early 50's -- 14% at the max to about 5% now. It was about 3% in 2001.

    OTOH, Yr over Yr defense spending growth (with some wiggles and wobbles) has been pretty close to constant over that same span of decades .

    In contrast, all govt non-defense spending has grown at a slower pace since the 80's than before.

    If we can wind down Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense spending ought to be a pretty minor issue.


  15. I'm not sure the entire premise is correct. If you polled just the Democratic members of the House and Senate, I suspect you'd find a majority support significant cuts in the military (rapid withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, elimination of missile defense, cuts in other expensive weapons programs, etc.). But in a Congress where the GOP controls the House and can obstruct everything in the Senate, the policy preferences of the Democrats don't have much weight.

    To the extent there are Democrats who are content with the status quo on defense spending, it's surely for the same reason Democrats do anything: terror that a conservative GOP challenger will run an ad against them or that somebody like David Broder will call them out as "unserious."

  16. I agree with the people who have said it's really a question about the President's budget and not so much a question about the preferences of Representatives and Senators, which as Colby notes hasn't ever been an area of universal agreement. And as far as the President's budget -- I assume someone who liaises with the relevant military, civilian-bureaucratic, and legislative people came to the conclusion that the administration couldn't push hard for both massive troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and also massive defense budget cuts at the same time. Of course everyone else's points about fear & district investment & such apply too.


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