Media Hypes Tea Party, GOP Split

Senior Republicans have voiced concern about whether Tea Party supporters will join Democrats in cutting the defense budget. Their isolationist and protectionist sentiments may, Sen. John McCain said earlier this week, lead to weaker support for the war in Afghanistan. Given what certainly seemed like quite a bit of sturm und drang we asked some of the most prominent keepers of the GOP flame -- at the Heritage Foundation -- to explain just how deep the split might be on defense issues between GOP stalwarts and the new kids on the Hill. Heritage's James Carafano says the media is making a mountain out of a molehill. -- Colin Clark

Senior Republicans have voiced concern about whether Tea Party supporters will join Democrats in cutting the defense budget. Their isolationist and protectionist sentiments may, Sen. John McCain said earlier this week, lead to weaker support for the war in Afghanistan. Given what certainly seemed like quite a bit of sturm und drang we asked some of the most prominent keepers of the GOP flame — at the Heritage Foundation — to explain just how deep the split might be on defense issues between GOP stalwarts and the new kids on the Hill. Heritage’s James Carafano says the media is making a mountain out of a molehill. — Colin Clark

It’s not a conspiracy — but it’s close. The ranks of those on the sidelines cheering for civil war among conservatives over defense spending are getting pretty thick. For the most part, though, they’re trying to spark a debate that doesn’t exist.

The media wants such a war because it makes good press. So they’ve spent plenty of time manufacturing controversy.

Case in point: On Nov. 3, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Rep. Eric Cantor. Reporting on this interview, the Associated Press said, “The Virginia congressman said on CNN Wednesday that all discretionary spending should be cut to 2008 levels, including defense.” Yet Cantor never mentioned defense. The reporter apparently just extrapolated that from Cantor’s support for returning to ’08 spending levels.

Nor is Cantor on record calling for cuts in the top line to the defense budget. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation last spring. He sounded like anything but a congressional leader interested in cutting the budget. The title of his speech was “Recommitting to Strong National Defense.”

Cantor isn’t alone. When Rep. Paul Ryan, who will likely chair the Budget Committee, outlined “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” his own plan for fiscal responsibility, he zeroed on getting the cost of government under control — again, without gutting defense.

Voters agree. The Hill’s 2010 Midterm Election Poll clearly states “six in 10 Republicans and 53 percent of independents said they would not accept cuts to defense and homeland security spending.”

It’s also pretty clear that Howard (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), who will likely chair the House Armed Services Committee, has no interest in shortchanging the Pentagon. “McKeon,” Federal News Radio recently reported, “criticized the president’s plans to slow historic growth in the Pentagon’s budget and said Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s plan to redirect savings in overhead expenses to higher-priority programs may not cover necessary costs and investments.”

There is plenty of conservative leadership in the Senate as well that is solid on defense. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently spoke at Heritage, and no one would mistake him for a dove on defense.

Furthermore, the Republican pre-election “Pledge to America” pointedly listed both a “A Plan to Keep Our Nation Secure at Home & Abroad” and “A Plan to Stop Out of Control Spending & Reduce the Size of Government” as part of their agenda and conspicuously omitted any talk of scaling back on defense.

The media has also asserted that Tea Party candidates are going to join progressives in going after defense. According to The Daily Dish, “tea party leaders and allies contacted by Politico said that both fairness and common sense dictate that the military budget be scrutinized for such cuts, a view that puts them in sync with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and some of the most liberal members of Congress.”

Sure, there are libertarians in the Tea Party who traditionally have favored having little more than a militia. Tea parties, however, reflect the broadest swath of American conservatives — not just one set of narrow beliefs. They are united by a belief in fiscal responsibility and limited government, but would stand shoulder to shoulder and shout the traditional Reagan mantra of “peace through strength.”

A study by the Sam Adams Alliance provides some interesting data on the leadership of the Tea Party. According to the alliance, 79.6 percent see defense as a top issue. Furthermore, 91.7 percent see the budget as “very important.” That suggests overwhelmingly that the leadership of the movement believes Washington ought to live up to its constitutional obligation to “provide for the common defense,” but that government ought to be limited and federal spending restrained. That doesn’t sound like a crowd interested in gutting defense.

Furthermore, some of the strongest tea party leaders, including Sen. Jim DeMint, Sarah Palin, and Rep. Michelle Bachmann, are about as hawkish as they come. Don’t expect the House tea party caucus to calling for hamstringing the Pentagon anytime soon.

Nor is the conservative movement in general indifferent to calls to make defense spending more efficient, and to curb fraud, waste and abuse. As Paul Ryan put it: “There’s lots of waste that can be saved. And those savings should go to fulfilling the mission of the Pentagon.” A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by AEI’s Arthur Brooks, Heritage’s Ed Feulner, and FPI’s William Kristol declares, “We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget.”

They committed to a joint project that only looks to defend the budget from unreasonable cuts, but also advocated that Americans get the most bang for their security buck. Heritage has already identified potential savings of $35 billon. But it has also argued that these savings need to be plowed back into the budget to make up for decades of anemic modernization.

While the media would love a war among conservatives, they’re likely to get little more than skirmish. Even libertarians are going to be so thrilled with the conservative wave to stifle the welfare state and restore discipline to government spending that they won’t object much when the broader conservative movement insists on defending America from its enemies.

James Carafano directs the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. He producess a weekly national security column for the Washington Examiner newspapers