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Democrats and Defense

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Bernstein:

It seems to me that one of the biggest differences between the current budget battle and the budget wars of the past (specifically the 1980s through Bill Clinton’s first term) is the extent to which that Democrats have accepted current levels of military spending. Yet my impression is that the underlying public opinion hasn’t changed much: Democratic voters would support deep cuts in defense spending, while overall defense spending cuts are relatively a lot more popular than cuts to most domestic spending.

Why do you think Democrats are not demanding lower military spending?

A few thoughts, two material, one strategic, one ideational none tested:

  1. Defense contractor consolidation in the 1990s gave all of the big firms a much wider geographic base, making it easier for them to farm out work to a broad group of states and congressional districts, giving more Democrats a taste of defense money.
  2. General decline of manufacturing makes those defense jobs all the more precious to Congressional Democrats and organized labor.
  3. Democratic party as we know it remains (although this may be fading) in the grip of the idea that Reagan clobbered them on defense spending. I say the idea, because I’m not convinced there’s any empirical evidence that arguing for high defense spending is generally a political winner.
  4. The moderate, northeastern wing of the Republican Party, which once could be occasionally relied upon to act as a coalition partner with defense cut-minded Democrats, has effectively vanished. Thus, there’s less policy payoff for pursuing defense cuts. The emergence of the Tea Party changes this a bit (I do think that there are Tea Partiers who are interested in cutting defense), but it’s likely that anti-Democrat hostility will prove a more important impetus to action.
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