Over the last two weeks, several reporters have asked me why I thought the defense industry’s efforts to head off sequestration had not succeeded. In light of the last-minute decision to delay implementation by two months, it seems that the premise behind the queries may have been wrong. Congress and the White House clearly did not want to see sequestration triggered on January 2 as the Budget Control Act required, and part of the reason why was undoubtedly the constant expression of concern about consequences emanating from big military contractors. I predicted in Forbesyesterday that sequestration as currently defined will not be implemented even after the two-month delay; if that proves true, then the industry campaign to avoid across-the-board cuts will have to be judged a success.
Having said that, I noticed several things during the campaign that definitely undermined its prospects for success. First, although Marion Blakey of the Aerospace Industries Association conducted a tenacious and imaginative campaign highlighting the negative economic consequences of sequestration, her members were not uniformly supportive of the effort. Lockheed Martin CEO Bob Stevens and Pratt & Whitney head Dave Hess took a lot of political heat for leading the charge, with Stevens in particular being unfairly criticized for simply stating the obvious. Other companies, most notably Boeing and Raytheon, seemed reluctant to engage on the issue — to a point where I wondered whether they were trying to gain tactical advantage by keeping quiet. Maybe I’m misreading the situation because I don’t know everything they were doing behind the scenes, but it appeared that some executives were a lot braver than others in the sequestration fight.
Second, the outcome of the election suggests that there is no self-identified “defense vote” in the electorate outside the ranks of uniformed military personnel. Although people like me repeatedly called attention to the importance of defense industrial jobs in key swing states such as Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania, there is little evidence that had a bearing on who won the election. Mitt Romney tried to mobilize workers at defense facilities like the tank plant in Ohio, but that had no discernible impact on how his campaign fared. The absence of a well-defined constituency in the electorate for weapons spending probably made the sequestration pleas of senior industry executives less compelling to politicians in both parties.
Third, the absence of an urgent threat to national security mitigated political concerns about the impact of sequestration. When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says deficit spending is the biggest threat facing the nation, that doesn’t exactly bolster the case for averting sequestration of defense funds. He’s gone now and his successor has sought to reverse the damage caused by that goofy statement (deficits are more important than nuclear deterrence or stopping another 9-11?), but it’s pretty clear that this political system has lost the sense of urgency about defense that prevailed a decade ago. The focus now is on the domestic scene, and that means many political leaders have stopped thinking in rigorous terms about the consequences of losing air dominance or command of the seas. So while politicians may fret about the impact of defense sequestration on jobs in their district, finding an audience for the notion that defense cuts are dangerous has become harder than it used to be.