Like pretty much every political junkie, I enjoy a good campaign advertisement. So this past week, when Barack Obama's campaign launched its new ad, "Worried," I quickly checked it out on YouTube.
It begins with a rather boilerplate attack on the Bush years, "You watched and worried; two wars; tax cuts for millionaires; debt piled up; and now we face a choice."
It's a pretty standard opening -- consistent with Team Obama's political message of portraying a vote for Mitt Romney as a vote for returning to the policies of the George W. Bush years.
What comes next is more surprising: "Mitt Romney's plan: a new $250,000 tax cut for millionaires; increased military spending; adding trillions to the deficit." Whoa. Wait a minute. Did Obama just attack Romney for wanting to spend more on defense? Um, yes he did -- and that sound you heard was the proverbial needle scratching the record. The last time a Democrat hit a Republican for spending more money on the armed forces was … well, it's been a while.
Indeed, presidential politics for about six decades has turned defense spending into a test of presidential manhood -- how much you want to spend on the military is shorthand for how much you love America and how "strong" you're willing to be in defense of it. In 1972, George McGovern talked about a 37 percent haircut for the military and got pilloried for it by Richard Nixon. In 1984, Ronald Reagan used the metaphor of a Soviet bear to warn against Democratic spending cuts for the military. And in 1988, Republicans ran this devastating ad against Michael Dukakis detailing all the myriad weapons systems he opposed -- interspersed with embarrassing pictures of him in a tank.
Even through the 1990s and after the Cold War had ended, Republicans were using the same sort of appeals. Here's George H.W. Bush in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Republican convention: "In the seventies, they wanted a hollow army. We wanted a strong fighting force. In the eighties, they wanted a nuclear freeze, and we insisted on peace through strength." Eight years later, his son George W. Bush, who often spoke of a foreign policy of humility, took a similar approach: "We have seen a steady erosion of American power and an unsteady exercise of American influence. Our military is low on parts, pay, and morale. If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, 'Not ready for duty, sir.'"
Of course, after the 9/11 attacks, the connection between defense spending and protecting Americans was made even more directly. And, once again, this presidential cycle Romney is running around accusing the administration of "wholesale reductions in the nation's military capacity." Yet not only is Obama seemingly unconcerned about such a charge; he appears to be embracing it. So what's going on here?
For starters, as William Saletan recently pointed out in Slate, defense spending isn't really all that popular. Recent polling shows a consistent level of support among voters for spending reductions to the Pentagon budget -- and a preference for seeing the Pentagon get hit by the budget ax rather than Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or education programs.