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Democrats and Defense



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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  • Bart

    Yes, I’ve come to believe that defense will not be cut significantly due to the number of jobs involved. After all, what else do we make now?

    So, why can’t taxpayers invest automatically in these companies, since our taxes support them?

    • joe from Lowell

      But it’s been well-established that just about any other government spending – education, new infrastructure, repair of old infrastructure, aid to the poor – will create jobs more cost-effectively than military spending.

      • Michael

        …and with more stability and benefit than the private sector in the current stagnant economic environment…

      • dave

        Yes, but you don’t get to BLOW UP FURRINERS with infrastructure investment, do you?

        Geez, sometimes I think you people don’t understand what the federal government is for.

  • David

    I’d be curious to see the numbers on unionization in the defense sector…

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    I don’t buy the premise that, in the past, Democrats generally favored cuts in defense spending.

    In fact, the military industrial complex was deeply institutionalized during the Cold War. When Carter, in the first half of his term, tried tentatively to stand up to it, a Democratic Congress largely resisted. And even Carter spent his last year in office jacking up defense spending. The 1980 presidential race was a virtual rhetorical arms race between Carter and Reagan. As Richard Rhodes describes in his book on Cold War nuclear policy, the first Reagan defense budget was essentially an arbitrary increase on Carter’s already high proposed defense budget.

    And after a brief consideration of a “peace dividend” following the end Cold War, the Demcrats again quickly returned to accepting ridiculous levels of military spending.

    So nothing’s new here. The majority of both parties support bloated Pentagon budgets and, with a few very short pauses, have done so for over sixty years.

    • I’m nota sure that this is quite right. There have certainly always been democratic factions strongly in favor of greater defense spending, and not just in the South (Scoop, etc.). However, my best recollection of the 1980s seems to tell me (as Bernstein suggests) that anti-defense spending voices were much more prominent (and taken much more seriously) then than they are now.

      • howard

        putting aside eisenhower warning of the dangers of the military-industrial complex, the first push for cutting defense spending the post-world war ii era came as part of the movement against the war in vietnam, when the “peace dividend” was floated.

        from “peace dividend” to “dfh” is a very brief step, and in my estimation, basically since 1972, no democrat has wanted to be associated with either.

        so yes, it’s political, but not, in my estimation, reagan-driven.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        What I remember from the 1980s is a series of largely unsuccessful criticisms of the Reagan (and later Bush) defense budgets. These took at least three forms (in descending order of success):

        1) Criticism of particular weapons systems as boondoggles.

        2) Criticism of Pentagon procurement policies as full of waste, fraud, and abuse (e.g. million dollar toilet seats on aircraft).

        3) The nuclear freeze movement.

        Only the last of these three was a systematic critique of our overall level of defense spending. And at least as far as the halls of power were concerned, it was far and away the most marginal. Reagan and Bush were consistently able to get their defense budgets through Democratic-controlled Houses of Representatives.

        While the criticisms of the Reagan defense budget may indeed have gotten more play in the media than criticisms of the Pentagon budget do today, I’m not convinced they got much more traction in Congress.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks


          People like Gary Hart and Les Aspin (who were associated with what was called “neoliberalism” in the 1980s…not to be confused with what is called “neoliberalism” today) spent a lot of time in the ’80s arguing for modernizing our defense posture, but their position was hardly dovish.

          Ron Dellums, at the time my Congressman and a real dove from quite possibly the most dovish district in the US, was Chairman of the House Arms Services Committee for the first two years of the Clinton presidency. I suspect that this was the high-water mark in recent US history of Congress taking the possibility of defense cuts seriously.

          • howard

            yes, i suppose ron dellums is the exceptional democrat who proves the rule that dems simply associate standing for cutting defense spending with losing politics.

        • “Only the last of these three was a systematic critique of our overall level of defense spending.”

          Really? Attacks on “waste, fraud, abuse” are pretty central to right wing efforts to cut entitlement programs and any other kind of budgets. They may not amount to a systemic critique, but I think they’re evidence that there was interest in attacking the defense budget.

          • howard

            i would suggest there is a difference between seeking to reduce the defense budget because as an a priori matter, one believes that the united states is spending more on defense than makes sense as a social allocation and looking to reduce waste etc. because you want to reallocate defense spending to meet different strategic objectives.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks

              That’s precisely the difference I was making, howard.

              I of course agree, Robert, that the rhetoric of “waste, fraud, and abuse” can be used to attack a category of spending much more broadly (as the right has done with all kinds of entitlement spending). I certainly think that doves in the ’80s joined in this rhetoric to criticize the Reagan defense budgets, but the heart of the criticisms of Pentagon procurement in those years really was about reallocating resources committed to defense, not demilitarizing US policy.

              • chris

                the heart of the criticisms of Pentagon procurement in those years really was about reallocating resources committed to defense, not demilitarizing US policy.

                But I thought the point of efficiency was accomplishing the same goals with fewer resources.

                You can be efficient by not paying $1 million for a toilet seat, or you can be efficient by achieving your geopolitical goals without starting a shooting war, or better still, both. ISTM that counting only one of those approaches as “demilitarizing policy”, when they have the same effect on the amount of budget available for accommodating the increasing health-care costs of retirees without destroying every other government program, creates more confusion than enlightenment.

              • To stake out a middle position, I think there’s a difference between “cutting defense spending” and “demilitarizing US foreign policy.” Critics in the 1980s who focused on waste/fraud/abuse, to my mind, were mostly talking about the former, not so much about the latter.

  • John Emerson

    5. The United States is a militarist nation with two militarist political parties and a militarist electorate. Since 1898 there has been futile opposition to every war, but the futility has been more robust than the opposition.

    6. States are militarist in purpose and anti-war forces are disloyal by definition.

    • Indeed, but the question here is about variance; I think that Bernstein is correct to have identified some variance in discourse since the 1980s, and I know that US defense spending has varied dramatically since 1898. 5 and 6 do not explain this variance.

  • mds

    I do think that there are Tea Partiers who are interested in cutting defense

    Indeed, and all three of them have my grudging respect for it.

  • Gregory

    I’m not convinced there’s any empirical evidence that arguing for high defense spending is generally a political winner.

    Especially if you refer to it by its proper name, military spending.

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  • I like it when folks get together and share ideas.
    Great site, keep it up!

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