Political Hay

The Unkindest Cuts

Is there room for scrutiny of the Pentagon budget in the GOP presidential field?

By 5.23.11

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Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman took a surprisingly dovish line in the first interviews of his nascent Republican presidential campaign. "I would have chosen from the beginning not to intervene in Libya," he told ABC News. "I would say that is not core to our national security interest." Huntsman was almost as skeptical of the war in Afghanistan. "I would tell you that we have to evaluate very carefully our presence in Afghanistan," he said, calling our current policy "not consistent with how we ought to be responding."

It figures, many a Republican primary voter will grumble. Huntsman's relatively liberal positions on environmental policy -- like a few other GOP presidential wannabes, he was for cap and trade before he was against it -- and civil unions have acquired him the dreaded "RINO" label. Huntsman is seen as a throwback to the party of Nelson Rockefeller, running a presidential campaign in the tradition of Pete McCloskey, John Anderson, and Arlen Specter.

Yet it was Huntsman who told Good Morning America he would have voted for Paul Ryan's budget proposal, something some of the field's putative conservatives -- including a certain former House speaker -- have pointedly declined to do. "Including the Medicare provisions?" George Stephanopoulos asked. "Including the Medicare provisions," Huntsman affirmed.

Huntsman indicated that fiscal conservatism, not liberal Republicanism, was responsible for his foreign policy restraint. "It's an affordability issue," he told the New York Times. "With all of our deployments and all of our engagements abroad, we need to ask a fundamental question: Can we afford to do this?"

Let's stipulate that someone who served in the Obama administration, even as an ambassador, is extremely unlikely to be the next Republican nominee. But is cost-consciousness about foreign policy a deal-breaker with the Republican primary electorate? It didn't help Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who announced yesterday that he won't be running for president in 2012. Daniels told Commentary that we must "ask questions about the extent of our commitments abroad" and informed the Weekly Standard defense spending must be on the table for budget cuts. Daniels has argued that the fiscal crisis was itself a threat to world leadership: "If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper."

It is harder to make the case that Daniels is a RINO, at least based on his record. But his distaste for red-meat rhetoric riled conservatives. More importantly, so did his talk of a "truce" on social issues. When Daniels recently suggested pro-choice former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might make a good running mate, it reinforced the impression that his truce would constitute a surrender.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's conservative credentials have seldom been question, and he too worries about the cost of nation-building and an overstretched military. He has asked what our mission is in Afghanistan: "I don't think our mission should be to think we're going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy" by creating a Western-style liberal democracy. On defense spending he has said, "Anybody who says we can't save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon." Yet Barbour, like Daniels, decided against running for president.

National security conservatives have faulted all three men for beating their swords into green eyeshades. The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb mordantly suggested the following campaign slogan on Twitter: "Huntsman 2012: Because we can't afford to kill America's enemies!" The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin complained, "Other than mouthing Ronald Reagan's now very shopworn slogan (‘Peace through strength'), Daniels speaks only of national security when he describes the need to cut defense spending."

Bill Kristol was especially scathing in his criticism of Barbour. Kristol described Barbour's take on Pentagon spending as "childish" and "slightly offensive" in a way that "calls into question how much time Barbour has spent at the Pentagon -- apart from time spent lobbying for defense contractors or foreign governments." He contrasted Barbour with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a "sincere Reaganite" who was running as the "heir of Reagan-Bush-McCain hawkishness." The title of Kristol's post? "T-Paw v. Hee-Haw."

If Barbour, a pillar of the GOP establishment, can elicit this kind of reaction for fairly mild comments, it is no surprise that scrutiny of military spending has been confined to Huntsman, Ron Paul, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and Republicans who aren't running for president. (Even if you count Daniels and Barbour, nobody polling better than Paul has raised these issues.) The rest of the Republican field either believes such spending should remain at least at current levels -- or that it would be too costly to say otherwise.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.