Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Republicans, be smart about defense cuts

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 3:07 PM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican and a skeptic of military interventions, might become the next secretary of defense.
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican and a skeptic of military interventions, might become the next secretary of defense.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: A massive political fight over defense spending is about to take place
  • Zelizer: Republicans are trying to figure out what their position should be after election loss
  • He says in decades past, the GOP was not an advocate for expansion of military spending
  • Zelizer: Republicans must have real discussions and not go along with the hawkish voices

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

(CNN) -- A massive political fight over defense spending is about to take place.

If Congress does not take action by March 1, there will be $1.2 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that Congress and President Obama had agreed to as part of the debt ceiling agreement of 2011.

Like with many other issues, Republicans are trying to figure out what their position should be in the post-2012 election world. With two consecutive losses in presidential elections and approval ratings in the tank, the party leadership is trying to figure out how to broaden rather than contract their electoral coalition. The best evidence of this came with the bipartisan agreement on immigration reform announced last week.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Republicans face the same important challenge when it comes to defense.

During the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney embraced a predictable response by warning that cuts would devastate the military and endanger American security. He often drew on Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's warnings to make his case. Other Republicans have joined the chorus of politicians who want to paint the Democratic administration as weak on defense.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Writing for CNN.com, William Bennett, who worked in President George H.W. Bush's administration, warned that the defense cuts would be the "most dramatic and dangerous" in history. Likewise, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham remarked: "How do you go to somebody in the military who's been deployed four or five times ... and say, 'For your good work over the last decade, we're going to ruin the military. ..."

This approach to the defense cuts, insisting that they should not happen and that high levels of spending are essential to the safety of the nation, fits into the recent history of the GOP.

Over the past four decades, Republicans became increasingly hawkish on national security. Skeptics of military intervention, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel, were pushed aside as mavericks and neoconservative rhetoric became the staple for the party. When it came to defense, big government was good and any questions about military spending were in fact challenges to our security.

Republicans might consider tapping into a different tradition, one that grows out of their own party history, in the coming months if they want to take a more nuanced approach.

For many decades, the Republican Party was skeptical about the expansion of military spending and national security programs. This was not about being isolationist. During the post-World War II period, there were important voices in the party that believed the excessive growth of government on defense posed the same kinds of risks as did domestic spending growth.

Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, "Mr. Republican," who was the leader of the party in the upper chamber, was a well-known critic of the Cold War buildup. While believing that the United States needed to be able to respond to the Soviet threat, he feared that excessive military spending would lead to the creation of a "Garrison State" that trampled on the very liberties that Americans were trying to protect.

Hagel, McCain tussle over Iraq surge
Hagel in the hot seat for Defense Sec.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, a military hero who was instrumental in the World War II victory, also didn't have much tolerance for endless defense spending. He spent much of his second term fighting against hawkish Democrats to hold down the military budget. Eisenhower, who believed as much as anyone that the United States had to be tough in the fight against communists, thought that too much of defense spending was driven by partisan interests and military contractors, having little to do with what the nation actually needed.

Like Taft, he feared that the huge appetite of Congress for rising spending was going to destroy the liberties and limited government that was at the center of what the United States was trying to protect. He also thought the expanding deficit would ultimately crush the U.S. economy. His famous farewell address about the "military-industrial complex" sent a strong warning to those who ignored this issue.

But those voices were drowned out by the hawks. Republicans, especially after the Vietnam War, adopted a very different posture where the drive for higher defense spending became a core issue, as much as tax cuts.

Now that defense cuts are on the table, a better partisan debate would be over where to cut defense spending and how to make our dollars give us the best security bang for the buck. This would entail a serious look at spending that has been driven too often by the needs of legislators to satisfy contractors in their district rather than decisions about what kinds of weapons are most effective.

Despite all the dramatic rhetoric, the fact is that the United States spent more in 2011 ($711 billion) than did China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, India, Saudia Arabia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia and Canada combined ($695 billion).

Even with the sequestration, according to Time, U.S spending would only decline from being 40% of all military spending around the globe to 38%. As Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan wrote in U.S. News and World Report, "The defense budget should and can be reduced significantly without harming national security." Korb pointed out that the cuts would only amount to 15% a year, which would still have the United States spending much more on defense on average than the country did in the Cold War.

Right now, Republicans are not well positioned for this debate. Ironically, President Obama is -- given that during his first term he broke with his party with an aggressive stance toward terrorism, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, and potentially with picking a Republican secretary of defense. He is well positioned to push for defense cuts without opening himself up to charges of being a reckless dove.

Republicans need to show the nation that they can engage in serious debates over the policy needs of the nation, rather than simply reiterating talking points meant to please the base. If they don't, on this issue, like so many others, the party will stand far off center and make it that much harder for the next presidential candidate to build a winning coalition.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT