For four years, from 1981 to 1985, David Stockman worked for Ronald Reagan as his budget director. Stockman hated his job. A few years after he quit, he got even. He wrote a memoir called The Triumph of Politics. The theme of the book was the horror Stockman felt at the process by which the federal budget is written. He was alarmed to discover that professional politicians (senators, congressmen, and cabinet officers) will often treat a political document (the federal budget) in such a way that it works to their political advantage (spend, spend, spend).
Even more horrifying, in Stockman’s telling, was his boss, who refused to kick the snuffling porkers away from the trough. President Reagan was a dope. He was given to saying silly things to his budget director. One of the silly things that Reagan liked to say—over and over again—was “Defense is not a budget issue. You spend what you need.”
Let this be a warning: Never try to tell a budget director that something isn’t a budget issue. He will write a book about you and reveal to the world that you are a dope.
Stockman believed that increases in defense spending of the magnitude Reagan favored were unwise, “compared with the severity of the deficit we faced.” So he wanted to cut the increases proposed by Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger. This disagreement over defense spending was only one of many disagreements between boss and aide. But in light of present circumstances it is perhaps the most instructive, as more and more Republicans succumb to the Stockman temptation and insist on cutting defense spending to help balance the budget.
For most of the first year of the Reagan administration Stockman and Weinberger engaged in bureaucratic warfare, each lobbing line-item rescissions and out-year projections at the other and then ducking for cover. Weinberger thought he was fulfilling one of Reagan’s campaign pledges, to rebuild the American military after a decade of parsimony that had emboldened our enemies. Stockman thought he was fulfilling one of Reagan’s campaign pledges too, to restore fiscal responsibility to the federal government after a generation of profligacy. At first Reagan failed to see that the two pledges had become irreconcilable. With his customary cheerful detachment he assumed the two fellas would work out their differences on their own.
When they realized that compromise was beyond them, Weinberger and Stockman brought their contest to the Oval Office for a series of presidential briefings. One of these presentations is the stuff of legend. In those golden, innocent days, PowerPoint did not exist, so Weinberger brought a poster-sized cartoon to make his case vividly to the president. The cartoon showed three soldiers. The smallest of them, Stockman recalled, was an unarmed pygmy—representing Jimmy Carter’s defense budget. The second was a bespectacled doofus—Stockman’s proposed defense budget. (The unsubtle joke was that Stockman himself was a bespectacled doofus. Pentagon humor.) The third was GI Joe himself, muscle-bound and well armed and ready to kick some Soviet tail—Weinberger’s proposed budget.
As the controversy wore on, Reagan’s own allies in Congress pleaded with him to side with Stockman and cut defense, demonstrating to the world the administration’s iron commitment to a balanced budget.
“Republican leaders came down to the W.H.,” Reagan wrote in his diary, “h—l bent on new taxes and cutting defense budget.” (Yes, Reagan censored the word “hell” in his own diary.)
The failure of his aides to settle on a defense allocation bothered Reagan because it looked bad—not politically, but strategically. Indecision and bickering about the country’s defense undercut the message that the defense increases were meant to send: letting the enemy know that the United States would spend whatever amount of money was required to remain invincibly armed. And the mere contemplation of cuts, especially in public, unsettled our allies.
“A really tough problem not yet resolved has to do with defense budget,” Reagan wrote again in his diary. “Cutting defense sends a message I don’t like to allies and enemies alike.”
“Fellas,” Reagan said (according to Stockman) when he called his budgeteers in for one last try at compromise, “we’ve got to get this defense thing settled. It’s starting to look bad to everyone out there. The other side might get the wrong idea.”
Stockman argued that the refusal to cut defense endangered the president’s project of shrinking the federal government. Defense cuts, Stockman said, “provide political lubricant for the other cuts.” Without them, Congress would never agree to reduce the government’s size in other ways.
But Stockman’s overriding concern was the yawning deficit—so vast that no department of government should be exempt from doing its part to close it. The deficit “had profound implications for defense, foreign aid, and national security policy,” Stockman said he told Reagan. “DOD [the Department of Defense] couldn’t be granted the luxury of declaring they were immune from such considerations. They were in the fiscal sweat box along with everyone else.”
Here of course was the nub of their disagreement over defense cuts, and here the disagreement lies, with appropriate modifications, among Republicans today. In the end, as history records, Stockman lost. Reagan agreed to a cut so small that Stockman called it “too ludicrous to denounce.” If providing sufficiently for defense endangered his other efforts to cut the budget, Reagan said later, he could live with that. If defense expenditures deepened the deficit, he could live with that too.
The 1980s fight over the defense budget, a fight fought first among Republicans, furnished Stockman’s interesting book with its great unacknowledged irony. Stockman hated his job because politicians insisted on subjecting the budget to political considerations. He hated Reagan because, when it came to the defense budget, Reagan refused to do the same.
And it’s not as though he didn’t try to tell Stockman over and over again: Defense was not a budget issue. We would spend what we had to spend.
Otherwise the other side might get the wrong idea.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.