The composition of the supercommittee matters a lot. It’s likely that there will be great solidarity among the Democratic members; they will be looking to defend social entitlements (and also looking to frame the 2012 election as a Republicans-throw-granny-under-the-bus contest). If they can’t raise taxes, they’ll look for bigger defense cuts. Conversely, the prime directive for Republicans will be no new taxes. They’d love to run on that issue in 2012. Unless they’re also hawkish on defense, the military will be the odd man out on the conservative side, too. And the sequestration, while allowing both sides to point fingers at one another, would also rip another $500-billion-plus out of defense spending.
But even more important may be the larger political debate. The supercommittee won’t be operating in a vacuum. If Republicans aren’t more committed to their professed strong America and Reaganite principles this second step in deficit reduction could be the one that takes the U.S military over the cliff, toward Dempsey’s “very high risk” future. It will be a time, too, when the party’s presidential candidates can make a big difference.
Tea Partiers, Speaker Boehner, Rep. Ryan and other committed conservatives have done a huge public service in changing the subject of American political debate since 2008. They’ve turned the ship of state toward a new heading. But these are the narrow seas, where the course between less government and a weak America must be carefully charted. To trust a “supercommittee” or to put things on sequestration autopilot – or to defer to a president who prefers to “lead from behind” – is to run very high risks indeed.
Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Gary Schmitt is director of AEI’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.
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