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Thompson Files: Defense consensus

There is agreement that defense will continue to cost hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
by Loren B. Thompson
Arlington, Va. (UPI) May 20, 2008
The conventional wisdom about American politics is that the nation has become deeply polarized since the Vietnam War, with voters increasingly crowding to opposite extremes of the political spectrum. For example, the May 11 New York Times contained an essay by William A. Galston and Pietro S. Nivola of the Brookings Institution that stated in its opening paragraph, "Our research concludes not only that the ideological differences between the political parties are growing but also that they have become embedded in American society."

However, there is evidence that the centrifugal forces leading to legislative paralysis in Washington may have begun reversing over the last several years. The long decline in the percentage of voters identifying themselves as Democrats has halted and stabilized at about 40 percent.

The rise in the numbers of voters claiming to be Republicans, which began during the Carter years, has also slowed and seems to be stabilizing around 30 percent. Meanwhile, the one group of self-identifiers whose ranks continue to swell are independents, now comprising more than 20 percent of the electorate for the first time since polling began.

The implication of these trends is that the political system is becoming less partisan, not more polarized. Look at Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the likely presidential nominees of their respective parties. Scratch the surface of their rhetoric, and you'll find surprising similarities in their views on global warming, immigration policy, energy independence and the need to lighten the tax burden on the struggling middle class.

And then there is the matter of national defense, where the two likely nominees are supposedly exact opposites. Well, guess again. When you look beyond Iraq, they share many of the same positions:

-- Both say that morality must be a core feature of U.S. military strategy and foreign policy.

-- Both say the size of the military, especially ground forces, needs to be increased.

-- Both say the military needs to shift to a new mix of skills focused on unconventional threats.

-- Both say the weapons acquisition process is broken and needs to be fixed.

Consider, too, the things they both think about defense, but don't say. Neither trusts military contractors. Neither believes that all the big-ticket weapons in the current military modernization plan are affordable -- or necessary. And neither plans to maintain defense spending at its current level, which is about $700 billion when you include war-related supplemental appropriations.

The Obama camp expects to cut military outlays to around $500 billion annually, while the McCain camp expects to end up around $550 billion. Not much difference there.

Even when they disagree on priorities, the consequences for defense end up being similar. For instance, Obama wants to get out of Iraq, thereby freeing up money for domestic initiatives in healthcare, education and energy independence.

McCain wants to stay in Iraq, but he has a slew of tax-cutting proposals that will be impossible to implement unless he finds savings elsewhere in the budget -- the budget he inherits will already be in deficit to the tune of perhaps $400 billion. So McCain, too, will have to turn to the Pentagon as a bill-payer.

Bottom line: Bipartisanship is making a comeback, and no matter who gets elected in November, defense spending is headed down.

(Loren B. Thompson is chief executive officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that supports democracy and the free market.)

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