As both U.S. presidential candidates return to the campaign trail after their conventions, the competing sides have drawn a bright line between how they view defense spending.
On the Democrats’ side, President Barack Obama believes additional defense cuts must be part of a broader deficit-reduction plan. Republican Mitt Romney does not, and instead wants to increase military spending.
During a prime-time address Sept. 6 at the Democratic National Convention, Obama said voters have “a choice” about their next commander in chief: a proven commodity or a novice.
“My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy,” Obama said of Romney and House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, D-Wis. “But from all that we’ve seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly.”
Obama drew a sharp contrast with Romney over Pentagon spending, bashing Romney for plans to substantially increase Pentagon spending as the nation’s finances remain bleak.
“While my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don’t even want, I will use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work,” Obama said.
The previous evening, former President Bill Clinton warned that Romney’s calls for larger defense budgets would inflate the already massive federal deficit.
Clinton attacked Romney’s vague proposal to boost annual Defense Department spending and a 2013 federal budget plan written by Ryan, which would give the military $30 billion more than Obama requested in February. Ryan’s budget also would swell DoD’s base budget by tens of billions of dollars a year through 2022, when it would approach $710 billion.
As with any incumbent running against an outside candidate, Obama has a distinct advantage when it comes to stacking up the specificity of the two campaigns’ national security priorities. Anyone who wants to assess Obama’s priorities can comb through the four Pentagon budgets he has proposed, along with the long-range spending plans and national strategies the Pentagon has released.
The amount of defense-related information the Romney campaign has released thus far roughly tracks with what Obama said at this point in his candidacy four years ago.
In July 2008, then-candidate Obama sat down with editors from the Military Times publications, the sister group of Defense News. Obama said he would build a military capable of taking on both terrorists and conventional militaries. He also promised to swell the Army and Marine Corps while boosting air and naval capabilities.
To pay for it all, Obama said he would free up funds by ending the Iraq War and canceling unneeded and poorly performing weapon programs.
Defense analysts and insiders largely shrugged at the lack of new details offered during the conventions.
“Issues of war and peace are unlikely to influence the outcome of this election,” said the Lexington Institute’s Loren Thompson, who also is a consultant to defense contractors.
Numerous polls continue to show the candidates’ plans to remedy a list of national economic and employment problems are of utmost importance to likely voters.
The back-to-back prime-time broadsides from Clinton and Obama suggest Democrats are poised to change that by making Pentagon spending a campaign issue as the 2012 White House race enters the homestretch. To that end, sources expect Obama to vigorously defend his first-term record on national security and foreign policy matters during the one debate that will be dedicated to such issues.
The GOP White House hopeful offered few specifics during his party’s convention about just how the additional defense dollars he is proposing would be spent. Romney, however, has said on the campaign trail he would buy more Navy ships.
“The message from Romney is clear,” Thompson said. “His talk of increasing defense spending is purely tactical and geared toward winning votes — not to be a framework for any broad strategy.”
James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation slammed Obama’s national security record.
“As President Obama nears the end of his fourth year in the Oval Office, most of the major global issues he faced coming into office remain unresolved,” Carafano said. “Worse, during those years, he may well have done more to sow the seeds of future conflict than to advance freedom and safety globally.
“The White House appears too anxious to turn away from the global war on terror,” Carafano said. “China, Russia, North Korea and Iran were potentially disruptive powers when the president came into office. They are no less so today.”
If the defense sector has a preferred candidate, it is hard to tell.
Major weapon makers largely have ignored the presidential campaigns, instead pouring millions into key congressional races, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
For defense firms, Obama is a known commodity with a five-year budget plan that was finalized this year. But, as one industry source put it: “Everyone is still kind of guessing about Romney’s plans.”
While public opinion has allowed Romney to remain vague about his Pentagon plans, the GOP platform, formally adopted during its convention, offers a window into his intentions.
It mostly criticizes the Obama administration for retiring military aircraft and ships and for shrinking the Army and Marine Corps, and charges that the White House is blocking efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear arms fleet.
The Republican platform signals a sharp departure from the Obama administration’s national security strategy, which it dubs “a budget-constrained blueprint that, if fully implemented, will diminish the capabilities of our armed forces.”
In contrast, the Democrats’ platform also lacks specifics on which weapon systems Obama might pursue or cut in a second term. But it signals Obama is keen for more of the latter: “We will continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in cutting-edge technologies and maintain a versatile set of capabilities required to execute a wide range of military missions.”
Rick Maze contributed to this report.