Despite the efforts of "The Three Amigos" — hawkish Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — the GOP's strong defense credentials have lost their luster. (AFP)
WASHINGTON — The Republican Party long was considered the hub of U.S. defense and national security policymaking. But as a changing GOP wrestles to form a clear agenda on those issues, experts say the party’s unintended stumbles and internal battles have allowed Democrats to seize that mantle.
Senate Republicans, eager to strike a blow to President Barack Obama, garnered headlines by turning Chuck Hagel’s defense secretary nomination into a political spectacle this month. Many House Republicans appear willing to allow something that just a few years ago was, for the GOP, unthinkable: deep cuts to planned military spending.
Numerous opinion polls show Americans are more supportive of Obama’s foreign policy and defense approaches than those espoused by Washington Republicans. And a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll released Feb. 21 shows that if those deep defense cuts go into effect, 49 percent of Americans would blame congressional Republicans and 31 percent would blame the president.
Republicans to blame for military spending cuts — what is going on here?
“The Republican Party has been slowly hemorrhaging having a strong national defense as a key priority of a conservative agenda for years. It predates President Obama,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense aide who is now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “This president, along with what I’m calling the ‘Libertarian moment,’ has pushed this neglect into the headlines. In fact, it’s beyond the headlines.
“It’s now evident in legislation,” Eaglen added. “Whether it’s the inability to exempt the Defense Department from being funded through the restrictions of a continuing resolution, like not being able to start new [weapon] programs, to not making a defense appropriations bill a priority over moving other spending bills, to the  Budget Control Act itself, defense is just not a Republican priority anymore.”
Some sources and pundits say the Hagel confirmation process put a big dent in the party’s claims to the defense and national security high ground.
One Democratic aide put it this way hours before Senate Republicans voted to keep alive a filibuster of Hagel’s nomination: “The Republicans have found a new way to embarrass themselves.”
But Dov Zakheim, Pentagon comptroller under President George W. Bush and an aide to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said the Hagel process “allowed Republicans to be able to say, ‘We are still strong on national defense.’”
“In fact, the interesting thing about the whole Hagel episode is that Republicans made it clear that: One, their very strong opposition to Hagel demonstrated that Obama won’t get much mileage about saying, ‘I appointed a Republican.’ The ferocity at hearings made it clear that Republicans didn’t support him.
“Two, the Republicans were able to reiterate ... their strong views on Iran, their support of Israel, their support of a strong defense budget. The important thing was they were able to put forth an agenda on these issues.”
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and a longtime political analyst, said past actions are mostly to blame.
“The Hagel confirmation hearing did not damage Republican defense credentials because the nominee performed so poorly. He made the skepticism of Republican critics look reasonable,” Thompson said. “In a broader sense, the Republican defense franchise has weakened markedly in recent years.
“First, Republicans launched a war in Iraq that never needed to happen. Then they spent ridiculous amounts of money to achieve very modest results. And now they are leading the charge to impose across-the-board spending cuts on the Pentagon,” Thompson said. “Any one of these missteps would make Republicans look like they might not be good stewards of national security. Collectively, they have handed the defense franchise to Democrats.”
Zakheim, however, views the Hagel confirmation vote and filibuster as allowing the Republican Party in the Senate to essentially “rebrand itself.”
“What the Hagel process allowed was for them to really reinforce the GOP image as strong on defense,” Zakheim said.
But Eaglen disagrees, saying: “In order to rebrand yourself, there has to be an agreement on what your brand should be — but there’s no consensus on that within the party.”
To that end, she sees the GOP’s lost grip on defense and national security issues being driven, in large part, by an ideological battle raging within the Republican Party.
“The GOP’s stalling on voting for Hagel is no more going to draw the attention of voters than David Petraeus’ resignation or the Justice Department’s leaked memo on drone strikes,” Eaglen said. “What sends a bigger signal on the changing GOP brand, and its likely weakened brand on these issues, are the dueling State of the Union responses by one party. That’s a bigger signal of divisiveness inside the party.”
In dueling Feb. 12 rebuttals to Obama, GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Texas both mentioned the pending defense cuts.
“Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America’s credit rating,” Paul said.
The tea party Republican appeared to be suggesting there should be even more Pentagon budget shrinkage beyond the sequestration cuts.
Rubio mentioned a need to avoid the cuts, but his mention of them was part of a line intended to politically damage Obama.
“Tonight, [Obama] even criticized us for refusing to raise taxes to delay military cuts — cuts that were his idea in the first place,” Rubio said. “We don’t have to raise taxes to avoid the president’s devastating cuts to our military. Republicans have passed a plan that replaces these cuts with responsible spending reforms.”
Eaglen said the divergent Paul and Rubio “responses suggest a divisiveness inside the party: There is a raging debate about who will lead the party and set its agenda, the deficit hawks ... or the defense hawks.”