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The Stockman Temptation

Defense is different.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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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.

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