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The gathering storm


"This may have been the week in which the full implications of today’s defense situation finally sunk in."

So wrote your correspondent back in February, when the normal cadences of the congressional-Pentagon relationship were jangled by new budget uncertainty and the creeping sense of political isolation.

“I don’t sense a commitment from everyone here on the Hill” about undoing sequestration, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin said back then. Still, people looked ahead to the wide open 2012 calendar sprawling before them and thought, ah, we've got plenty of time to take care of this.

Now it's August and Congress has gone on recess, in part to campaign before this November's elections. In the intervening months lawmakers have convened 1,943,788 hearings to warn anyone who will listen about the dangers of sequestration. To a certain degree, they've succeeded: Mainstream reporters and a few political figures outside the defense family have started to pay attention. But it was clear this week, even after the months of noise-making, that Akin's sense of isolation is still in effect up on the Hill.

Wednesday's now-infamous hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, which broke from its standard script of "where's mine" to an unusually rancorous airing of partisan talking points, showed the depth of frustration in the defense world. A few years ago, defense was a prince of Washington interest groups. With two hot wars underway and a unanimous "support our troops" mentality in the country, the Pentagon, its allies and dependents got whatever they wanted, times two, yesterday. Now that same cohort has become just another victim in today's politics of hostage-taking.

Only this time, it's Democrats who say they're willing to let the hostage die. President Obama says that unless Congress gets a deal on its own to avoid January's automatic, across-the-board budget restrictions, he'll let them happen. There's still plenty of time for Congress to work this out, the administration says.

But neither  committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon nor its top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, sounded too optimistic. McKeon wrote in the Washington Post even before his own hearing that he didn't expect much progress, and he warned everyone during the proceedings that far from "plenty of time," Congress only has about two legislative weeks before Election Day to act. If it tries to deal with this problem after the election, in its winter lame duck session, he didn't appear to think the odds were very good.

The problem for defense is that it has spent the year since the signing of its guillotine order shouting in an echo chamber. As we've observed here before, everyone in the family agrees. But even with House and Senate lawmakers out canvasing the byways and standing up on crates to warn Joe and Jane Voter about sequester, there doesn't seem to be much resonance with Americans.

In fact, William Saletan of Slate rubbed his eyes in disbelief this week when he wrote about an Obama campaign ad attacking his GOP rival, Mitt Romney, for supporting increased defense spending.

Wrote Saletan:

President Obama has just released a new TV ad. He’s picking a fight with Mitt Romney over—can you believe this?—the defense budget. The ad says Romney, unlike Obama, would “increase military spending.” Is Obama crazy? Isn’t it political suicide to argue for a cheaper military?

Apparently not.

Democrats have long suffered for looking soft on defense. Remember Mondale and the nuclear freeze? Dukakis in the tank? Clinton and the gay ban? Kerry and the $87 billion? Democrats always preferred less money for national security, but they never admitted it. Just a week ago, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama pledged, “We will maintain our military superiority. It will be second to none as long as I am president.”

The new ad abandons this pose. Using Iraq War footage and a fat aerial photo of the Pentagon, it comes out proudly for a leaner defense budget:

Two wars. Tax cuts for millionaires. Debt piled up. And now we face a choice. Mitt Romney’s plan? A new $250,000 tax cut for millionaires. Increase military spending. Adding trillions to the deficit. Or President Obama’s plan: a balanced approach. Four trillion in deficit reduction. Millionaires pay a little more.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So I looked up the latest poll data and compared it to previous years. And you know what? That ad isn’t crazy. The polls have been moving. Obama has caught Romney on what’s now, by some measures, the losing side of the issue.
We wrote about this sentiment in May. And although it's not a sure thing, Obama's willingness to take the risk of attacking Romney on defense spending, combined with his support for letting sequestration happen, shows that the world out there is changing. The next challenge for the defense industry, Congress and the Pentagon could be to manage this shifting ground the best they can.


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