With the country's eyes turned to South Carolina this week, I have a peculiar tale to tell of the Palmetto State:
The story begins in November 2010, when Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney unseated John Spratt, a 14-term Democrat, in South Carolina's 5th District. Spratt, who sat on the House Armed Services Committee, was probably the last of a very long line of Democrats who had helped turn South Carolina into an archipelago of military bases. One of the biggest of them, Shaw Air Force Base, sits in the 5th District. But Mick Mulvaney didn't think he had been elected to bring home more military bacon. So last summer, he outraged his hawkish colleagues by introducing an amendment to freeze current defense spending at 2011 levels. (The measure was trounced.)
This past fall, I went to talk to Mulvaney in his office. He told me with great pride that he had compiled the second-most conservative voting record in Congress. He was a small-government conservative, down the line. So defense spending, to him, was simply spending, and he had no intention of going along as his predecessors had. "We have ended up," Mulvaney said, "in the situation which Eisenhower warned us against, that we are so beholden to the military-industrial complex that neither party is willing to make the tough decisions." As he spoke, I thought I heard the late Sen. John Stennis -- he of the eponymous aircraft carrier -- spinning in his grave. Mulvaney said that at town-hall events he often cites the words of Adm. Mike Mullen, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said, "The most significant threat to our national security is our debt." I asked whether any of the military veterans in the crowd came after him. Nope, said Mulvaney.
I later spent some time in the 5th District talking to Mulvaney's constituents. My favorite interview was with Jim Vinyard, a Vietnam War vet who had turned the upstairs of his home into a shrine to the Marines. Vinyard told me that "political correctness" was eating away at America's vitals, and he was extremely rough on Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and liberals generally. He said, however, that he had no problem with Mulvaney's effort to hold the line on defense spending and, like presidential candidate Ron Paul, couldn't see why America kept troops forward-deployed in Europe and Asia. His experience in Vietnam taught him that the battle for "hearts and minds" now under way in Afghanistan can't be won. He was ready for the United States to get out.
Several themes kept coming up in my conversations in the district. One was a disgust at the federal government from which the Defense Department enjoyed no immunity -- the classic Tea Party view. Another was disillusionment with America's foreign adventures abroad and a wish to bring the boys home. Chauncey Gregory, who holds the seat in the South Carolina Senate that Mulvaney held before him, says he has grown so disgusted with recent interventions abroad that he would warn his 20-year-old son again joining the Army -- an apostasy in that neck of the woods. A third issue was: Where's the big threat? Terrorism didn't seem nearly as dangerous as it had before. And China and Iran were problems for another day.
One of the inferences I drew from these conversations was that the very real threats of recession and unemployment had made the threats beyond U.S. borders seem remote and hypothetical. In a zero-sum calculus, foreign policy lost -- a worrying prospect for anyone who wishes to revive Americans' faith in their country's capacity to do good abroad. Beyond that, I had the impression that the link between patriotism and defense spending, which hawks had encouraged for generations, was finally loosening. You can love the military without loving military spending. In the South Carolina debate this week, Paul claimed that he received more funding from currently serving soldiers than the other candidates combined. That sounds unlikely, but it would be telling if he got even as much as candidate Mitt Romney or the latter's fellow hawks.
In the debate, Romney renewed his attacks on President Obama's planned defense cuts, accusing him of gutting the Navy and the Air Force. He has said in the past that he would increase the defense budget by at least $30 billion a year. This line continues to get applause at the American Enterprise Institute and Conservative Political Action Conference. The Republican elite remains committed to a hawkish, big-spending policy and will keep hammering Obama as a peacenik, the way Republicans have done to Democrats for the last 40 years. It won't resonate the way it used to, however, because too many ordinary conservatives have lost the faith. Paul arouses plenty of antipathy with his attacks on U.S. foreign policy, but he also gets a great deal of applause -- more than Romney ever gets when he calls for more ships and planes. Polls consistently find that Americans are prepared to accept serious cuts in defense spending.