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The Politics of Defense Cuts

The president tries—and fails—to paint Republicans into a corner.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Not that long ago it looked like President Obama had Republicans right where he wanted them. As the debate over the 2011 budget played out on Capitol Hill, he threatened to veto the legislation if it cut one dollar more from defense spending than the budget request submitted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.


AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

It was an unusual position for Republicans to find themselves in. They’d been fighting against defense cuts since liberals dropped all that imperialist talk of paying any price and bearing any burden in favor of calling for an Air Force funded by bake sales. And suddenly a Democratic president—this Democratic president—was threatening to veto Republican legislation that would, the White House claimed, “leave the department without the resources and flexibility needed to meet vital military requirements.”

Obama and Gates have cut viciously at the defense budget since the administration first came into office. Nothing’s been safe. They cut aircraft programs like the F-22 and the C-17, they cut the Navy down to its smallest size since World War I, and now they were cutting the Army and Marine Corps by 47,000 troops even as those two services bear the brunt of the fighting in Afghanistan. But they were playing the politics well. Obama was bankrupting the country and devaluing the dollar. Who, then, was going to argue with his Republican defense secretary when he said he didn’t need all those pricey weapons?

The Obama-Gates cuts had begun very deliberately, with big speeches made to defend the termination of high-profile, big-ticket, but mostly controversial weapons systems. But after the rout of Democrats at the polls last fall, and with Republicans promising they were serious about cutting spending this time, Obama and Gates grew bolder. Even as they cut deeper and deeper, they cleverly tried to paint the new Tea Partyish Republican Congress as extreme, and as endangering U.S. troops with plans to reduce the deficit by cutting defense.

Except it didn’t work. It turns out the Republican Congress didn’t have any intention of making additional defense cuts. A shutdown was averted, a stop-gap funding measure was passed, and Republicans focused their attention on Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget. House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, along with Republican members of his committee, pushed Ryan to keep defense spending roughly where the Defense Department had requested. In a budget proposal that would cut $4 trillion over 10 years, Ryan managed to keep defense spending on a course for small but steady growth—roughly in line with Defense Department planning.

For all the recent talk about how the Ryan budget has made Republicans vulnerable to Democratic attacks on Medicare, little attention has been paid to how it has once again made Democrats vulnerable to Republican attacks on defense. Just when it looked like Obama had neutralized an issue Republicans had owned for decades, he threw it all away. In an attempt to show he was as serious as Ryan about reining in spending, he gave a speech calling for another $400 billion in defense cuts over ten years—an arbitrary number that Obama didn’t even try to connect to an assessment of the challenges U.S. forces will face in the next decade.

Liberals still seem hopeful that the Tea Party will lead Republicans into a defense spending revolt, but they’re hoping against all evidence to the contrary. The early frontrunners for the Republican nomination have all made the case that the country can’t afford the further military cuts Obama has called for.

Tim Pawlenty broke the news to the libertarians at the Cato Institute last week. When asked why the United States needed so many military bases, Pawlenty pushed back. “I’m not one who’s going to stand before you and say we need to cut the defense budget,” he said. “I’m not for shrinking America’s presence in the world. I’m for making sure America remains the world leader.” Alex Conant, a senior Pawlenty aide, says that “a president’s budget reflects his priorities and Obama’s overseen a huge increase in spending on stimulus and Obama-care.” Pawlenty, on the other hand, would “refocus spending on the federal government’s core responsibilities, like national defense.”

Likewise, when Mitt Romney gave a speech about fiscal responsibility in New Hampshire in March, he stipulated that because defense comprises just “20 percent [of federal spending], and given what’s happening in the world, we should not reduce our commitment to national security. In particular, we should not cut the number of our men and women in uniform!”

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