How Do You Cut Defense Spending

Responding to Ezra’s musing about the political feasibility of cutting defense spending, Yglesias writes:

The most relevant issue, when thinking about cuts, is thinking about the political fight that ensues. If a President proposed cutting the defense budget and then you had a ton of stories in the press where senior military officers fret off the record that the cuts will endanger America, and every television network trotted out a former general with undisclosed ties to defense contractors as an “independent analyst” to condemn the cuts, and if active duty soldiers sent emails to their civilian family and friends complaining about the cuts, and if think tank experts who depend on cooperation with the military to do their research either complained about the cuts or else stayed silent, then I think you’d have a giant political fiasco on your hands.The relevant issue here, in other words, is that the military is the most trusted institution in America and then on top of that the defense sector of the economy has a lot of money and economic reach. Consequently, it’s very political difficult for a president to do anything that provokes the ire of the defense establishment whether or not it polls well in the abstract. This seems to me to be a huge problem in American political life, but it’s not obvious to me what steps will resolve it.

I’d say Matt is right in his estimation of the political conflict trying to substantially cut defense spending would ensue, but I think the answer to the question of what steps would make it more feasible are much more obvious.

First of all, you’d need a President who was committed to reigning in military spending as a first priority. This seems pretty self-explanatory. Secondly, for better or worse, you need a Republican President. The counter-intuitiveness of a Republican who thought we spent too much money on the Pentagon would make it slightly harder to demonize the effort as some pacifistic military hatefest out of hand, and provide some political cover. Plus, Congressional Republicans are much more apt to fall in line with what they’re told, so a Republican President could probably bring a handful of Congressional votes a Democratic President simply couldn’t get. Finally, you’d need a President with military experience, and experience that reaches into senior command. Think Dwight Eisenhower. It’s rather hard to accuse former generals of hating the military or not being sufficiently knowledgeable about the needs of the military at large.  Conservative hawks intent on demonizing the President would immediately look like lunatics, and hawkswho wanted more credibility would have to reflexively acknowledge the President’s credibility. In other words, you’d need President Petraeus to agree that we spend way too much money on the military, and that this is a big problem that desperately needs to be fixed. Would that be enough to shift the narrative and win the necessary votes in Congress? It’s hard to say, but it’s the only realistic path to that end I see in the near term.