Is Spending Creating a Consensus on Defense?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 7, 2011 · 11:02 AM EDT

It’s 11 weeks until the deadline for the supercommittee to reduce federal budget deficits by at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years or else trigger across-the-board spending cuts, including big cuts in defense.

As Americans shift their focus away from terrorism and toward the nation’s economic future, it’s fair to ask: On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, has the nation’s concern over spending forced the two parties into a new period of agreement on defense and foreign policy?

Since the end of World War II, the parties have at various times been in general agreement and complete disagreement on matters involving national security and defense.

The 1950s and early 1960s were a simple time for the parties. Both agreed that the Soviets enslaved Eastern Europe and fomented revolution in the Third World, as well as that the U.S. must defend freedom and stop communism’s spread.

Things got more complicated during the 1960s and 1970s, as the nation and the parties took different paths.

While Republicans continued to view international conflicts through the same anti-communist lens they always had and supported virtually any new proposed military expenditure, many on the political left (including some Democrats) began to identify with the underdogs, expressing feelings of guilt about American affluence, the military establishment and U.S. “imperialism.”

The fall of communism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism changed that.

After the attacks of 9/11, Republicans and Democrats started reading from the same playbook, praising American heroism and tolerance, warning about Islamic extremism and demanding that al-Qaida pay a steep price for the attacks.

For a brief time, politics again ended at the water’s edge, with the parties disagreeing on domestic issues but unified about the threat of terrorism.

Democrats finally tired of the longtime GOP practice of caricaturing them as less than patriotic, eventually leading 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) to surround himself on the stage at the Democratic National Convention with American flags and former generals.

Democratic strategists figured that the symbols of patriotism and a presidential nominee with a sterling war record in Vietnam would nullify the usual Republican demonizing. It didn’t.

During the past half-dozen years, things have become still more complicated.

Voices in both parties — from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) on the libertarian right to Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) on the left — express concern about civil liberties, complaining that a government that peers too deeply into people’s lives with the intention of stopping terrorism also threatens the privacy of loyal Americans.

The long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also taken their toll on both parties.

Many Democrats, genetically inclined to see defense spending as wasteful and preferring to spend on domestic programs, turned against the U.S. intervention in Iraq and what they regarded as President George W. Bush’s deceptions. The party’s evolving view on foreign policy was made all the more significant by the defeat of many moderate Democrats in the 2010 elections

While candidate Barack Obama promised to hunt down Osama bin Laden, he also committed to closing the detention facility at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and getting the U.S. out of Iraq. For many anti-war Democrats, he was the answer to their prayers.

Now, many of those same Democrats are disappointed that the Guantánamo facility remains open and that the war in Afghanistan has dragged. In May, Princeton University’s Cornel West, a longtime supporter of Obama, called the president a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”

For their part, Republicans appear more conflicted on foreign policy than they have been in more than a century.

While the end of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism left Republicans without their longtime ideological adversary, they quickly found a new one — Islamic extremism — which they argue threatens Western values and U.S. interests and allies.

Still, the GOP’s recent focus on restraining spending and balancing the budget has meant a greater willingness to cut defense spending, and the long, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left some conservatives wondering about nation building and whether foreign commitments carry an unacceptable cost.

The one area where both parties agree is Israel, though cracks are showing even there.

Both parties continue to be committed to protecting Israel, at least at the Congressional level. But unlike the 1950s and 1960s, Republicans now seem more completely supportive of Israel’s agenda, from the highest levels of elective office down to the party’s grass roots. That’s no longer quite the case with the Democratic Party, where substantial criticism of Israeli governments and policy is easier to find.

For the moment, both parties — and certainly the American people — have put the country’s economic health, and particularly jobs and spending, on the front political burner, and that certainly affects defense spending.

And yet national security questions always seem to pop up, especially during presidential elections. While both parties are talking about defense cuts, it’s clear that Democrats and Republicans have different views that still reflect the different values, assumptions and styles that were apparent during the 1960s.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s approach, for example, is likely to be very different from Obama’s on foreign policy, reflecting the GOP’s greater reliance on unilateralism and the Democrats’ greater nervousness about flexing America’s military muscles. And Republicans are extremely unhappy about substantial cuts to the defense budget, even with their concern for cutting overall spending.

Given current concerns, the 2012 presidential election isn’t likely to be about foreign policy. But national defense and national security issues won’t be absent from the electorate’s voting equation either, so both parties better figure out what they believe on the subject and how to communicate it to the voters.