Another factor weighing in the fiscal hawks' favor was public sentiment. Though not generally inclined to support cuts in programs that they saw as benefiting them personally, the public was relatively more open to cuts in military spending, and was particularly indisposed to hiking taxes to pay for more spending. For example, a Pew Research Center poll taken just before the sequester went into effect found little support for cutting any major government program. Even cuts in foreign aid, a perennial outrage, garnered a mere plurality in the Pew poll. Earlier polls and citizen action groups found support for cutting Pentagon spending faster and more deeply than sequestration did. And, in the end, the public wasn't very scared by the defense hawks' histrionics.
The mechanics of the sequester also proved useful. "Washington's seemingly limitless capacity for doing nothing finally worked in our favor," explains Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union. "The sequester empowered fiscal hawks in a way that expiring [continuing resolutions] and debt ceilings can't. All they had to do was ride out the storm of media criticism over spending cuts rather than get ahead of it."
ATR's Mattie Duppler thinks that the fact that Republicans held the line on Pentagon spending and lived to tell the tale might "pave the way for some smarter Pentagon reform" going forward. "After all," she explains, "once you've made the first cut, you can't cross back over the Rubicon to say it is never, ever OK to cut defense spending." Because of what happened during this latest sequester fight, Duppler says, "it's not a shock to the body politic for an R to suggest savings in Pentagon spending."
That doesn't mean, however, that the fiscal hawks will win the next round. The defense contractors and special interests still have enormous firepower in Washington, and they've turned their attention to the "continuing resolution" that will fund the government for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile, the neoconservatives are single-minded and relentless. Their tenacity paid off in their bid to launch a war in Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, but failed to stop Chuck Hagel's nomination and eventual confirmation as secretary of defense.
The budget fight matters even more. A $470 billion military is more than sufficient to fight the wars the United States truly needs to fight, but not the wars that the neocons want to fight. The next phase in the fight over the Pentagon's budget should focus less on how much the United States spends on defense, but rather why it spends so much. If we are going to give our military less than it expected to have three or four years ago, we need to think about asking it to do less.
A number of diverse organizations have come forward with concrete proposals that do just that. A more modest grand strategy, one dedicated to defending vital U.S. interests, but that allowed for other countries to do more to defend theirs, would require a smaller, less expensive military than the one that fought and won the Cold War, but that has struggled to defeat insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The debate over those different proposals will heat up in the months ahead.
It is way too early for budget hawks to declare victory. The neocons won't go down without a fight, and they will have other chances in the months ahead to ratchet the Pentagon's budget back up to unnecessary levels. Still, it is significant that the fiscal hawks prevailed this time around, and it provides hope to those who believe that the United States can be safe and secure even without breaking the bank.