Budget-Waving Contest

Romney's ridiculous fight about who's got the bigger military doesn't worry Obama. But should it?

SHAWN THEW-Pool/Getty Images
SHAWN THEW-Pool/Getty Images

Like pretty much every political junkie, I enjoy a good campaign advertisement. So this past week, when Barack Obama’s campaign launched its new ad, "Worried," I quickly checked it out on YouTube.

It begins with a rather boilerplate attack on the Bush years, "You watched and worried; two wars; tax cuts for millionaires; debt piled up; and now we face a choice."

It’s a pretty standard opening — consistent with Team Obama’s political message of portraying a vote for Mitt Romney as a vote for returning to the policies of the George W. Bush years.

What comes next is more surprising: "Mitt Romney’s plan: a new $250,000 tax cut for millionaires; increased military spending; adding trillions to the deficit." Whoa. Wait a minute. Did Obama just attack Romney for wanting to spend more on defense? Um, yes he did — and that sound you heard was the proverbial needle scratching the record. The last time a Democrat hit a Republican for spending more money on the armed forces was … well, it’s been a while.

Indeed, presidential politics for about six decades has turned defense spending into a test of presidential manhood — how much you want to spend on the military is shorthand for how much you love America and how "strong" you’re willing to be in defense of it. In 1972, George McGovern talked about a 37 percent haircut for the military and got pilloried for it by Richard Nixon. In 1984, Ronald Reagan used the metaphor of a Soviet bear to warn against Democratic spending cuts for the military. And in 1988, Republicans ran this devastating ad against Michael Dukakis detailing all the myriad weapons systems he opposed — interspersed with embarrassing pictures of him in a tank.

Even through the 1990s and after the Cold War had ended, Republicans were using the same sort of appeals. Here’s George H.W. Bush in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Republican convention: "In the seventies, they wanted a hollow army. We wanted a strong fighting force. In the eighties, they wanted a nuclear freeze, and we insisted on peace through strength." Eight years later, his son George W. Bush, who often spoke of a foreign policy of humility, took a similar approach: "We have seen a steady erosion of American power and an unsteady exercise of American influence. Our military is low on parts, pay, and morale. If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, ‘Not ready for duty, sir.’"

Of course, after the 9/11 attacks, the connection between defense spending and protecting Americans was made even more directly. And, once again, this presidential cycle Romney is running around accusing the administration of "wholesale reductions in the nation’s military capacity." Yet not only is Obama seemingly unconcerned about such a charge; he appears to be embracing it. So what’s going on here?

For starters, as William Saletan recently pointed out in Slate, defense spending isn’t really all that popular. Recent polling shows a consistent level of support among voters for spending reductions to the Pentagon budget — and a preference for seeing the Pentagon get hit by the budget ax rather than Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or education programs.

Indeed, according to a recent poll done this year by the Center for Public integrity, the Program for Public Consultation, and the Stimson Center that looked at specific areas of military spending, Americans support an average total cut to the Pentagon budget of $103 billion — a larger reduction than the $55 billion in annual cuts currently supposed to go into effect at the end of the year under sequestration. Moreover, two-thirds of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats were fine with immediate cuts to the defense budget.

But these results shouldn’t come as a huge surprise — the general public has long believed that the United States is far too profligate when it comes to supporting its armed forces. Gallup has for years been asking Americans whether they think Washington is spending "too little," "too much," or "about the right amount" on the military. During the 1980s, a period when Republicans were hammering Democrats for allegedly wanting to weaken the armed forces, Americans overwhelmingly believed the United States was spending "too much" versus "too little" on defense appropriations. Even since 2003, Americans largely have held the same view. Today, 41 percent of Americans believe the United States spends "too much"; 24 percent "too little"; and the rest "about the right amount."

Of course, the problem here is that defense spending is never really about defense spending; it’s a synecdoche for the commitment to keeping America safe from foreign danger. Few Americans could tell you the benefits of one weapons system over another or what level of Pentagon spending is most appropriate or why the United States even needs a giant military in the first place. Rather, the equation on defense budgets is much simpler: more spending on defense = strong on defense; less spending on defense = weak on defense. These are, of course, deeply simplistic definitions, but in a deeply simplistic campaign they can have significant shorthand resonance.

Indeed, as Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation, pointed out to me, "being opposed to military spending increases is a very safe political position. Saying you support cuts to the Pentagon budget is a riskier position, especially for a Democrat, not because people are not comfortable with cuts, but because by saying it explicitly, one is vulnerable to having that comment embedded in a larger narrative of being a less determined and tough leader." Voters might prefer less defense spending, but it still tends to bring up negative connotations for politicians who say so directly. This likely explains why Obama’s "Worried" ad is hitting Romney for wanting to spend more on defense rather than bragging about wanting to force the Pentagon to do more with less.

An Obama campaign official I spoke with made a similar point. The official defended the president’s record of "keeping America safe" while also blasting Romney for "proposing to explode defense spending in an arbitrary way for political purposes, with no strategic benefit for our nation’s security and no way to pay for it." According to Office of Management and Budget projections, a future Romney administration would spend around $800 billion on national defense in 2016, while an Obama administration would spend just less than $600 billion. But forget the $200 billion difference for a second; both numbers are far higher than what’s needed to keep America safe. In fact, the cuts that would take place under the much-derided sequestration would simply return the Pentagon budget to fiscal year 2007 spending levels. Still, it’s fair to note that Romney wants to go far beyond what Americans want to spend on the military budget.

Nonetheless, not everyone I spoke with was so enamored about Obama’s new line of attack. Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster who served in Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, said that this entire approach feels like a bit of an "unforced error." According to Rosner, "Obama is well respected on national security; why make an issue out of what is a long-term Democratic vulnerability like defense spending? It’s an unnecessary attack line that cuts against one of his core strengths." Indeed, it’s hard to quibble with the notion that Obama is unnecessarily playing into one of Romney’s key arguments against him.

But there is another element to this discussion. The fact is that public opinion clearly gives Obama a strong advantage on foreign policy and national security issues, so the traditional weakness meme doesn’t play the way it traditionally has. Hitting Obama for cutting defense spending, while it might come straight out of the Republican presidential campaign handbook, has far less resonance against an incumbent who killed Osama bin Laden, upped the drone war, successfully prosecuted the conflict in Libya, and has generally been pretty competent on national security.

All this has forced Romney to move further to the right — not just on Pentagon spending, but in picking fights with enemies and allies alike and rattling sabers against Iran, Russia, and China. It’s as if Romney’s trying to poke the bear so that he can make the case that he needs some big guns to defend against it. But it doesn’t look calculating right now, so much as it does risky. When you throw in Romney’s recent gaffe-filled trip to Europe, it has the cumulative effect of making the Republican standard-bearer look impulsive, irresponsible, pugnacious — even "weak" — on national security.

Four years ago, the John McCain camp — as well as Hillary Clinton — went after Obama for being unprepared for the responsibilities of being commander in chief. It now appears increasingly likely that Obama is preparing to turn the tables and make a similar attack against Romney.

Though, here again, Rosner expressed surprise that the Obama camp is going down this road: "There are plenty of ways to attack Romney for being unprepared on foreign policy. Attacking him for wanting to increase the Pentagon’s budget hardly seems like the most fertile area." In fact, it seems strange that right after one of the worst foreign-policy trips by a presidential candidate ever, the Obama camp was running ads about defense spending rather than Romney’s overseas misadventure.

Still, rather than being worried about being seen as too weak on national security, Democrats appear confident — and focused on portraying their opponent as being unprepared and even too "reckless" to do the job effectively.

It’s a risky attack line — and one that opens up political vulnerabilities for Obama — but it’s also an indication that we’ve entered a strange new world. If it works, we might have to rethink the way Democrats and Republicans talk about national security on the presidential campaign trail.

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