Sixteen months ago, in October of 2008, I wrote an improbable issue brief titled, “Five Reasons Weapons Spending Won’t Fall.” It argued that if Barack Obama won the White House, he wouldn’t slash weapons outlays the way other recent Democratic presidents had. That thesis contradicted a model of political causality developed by Ron Epstein of MerrillLynch (now part of Bank of America) that demonstrated weapons spending almost always declines when Democrats control the White House or the Senate. In fact, the model said that partisan control of the government accounted directly or indirectly for 90% of all the variation in weapons outlays over the previous 50 years, with Democrats consistently favoring cuts. Having spent years promoting the Epstein model, it was rather odd that I would predict the opposite outcome. It was so odd, in fact, that I didn’t really believe what I wrote — I just wanted to see whether I could convince myself.
Fast forward 16 months to the Obama Administration’s fiscal 2011 budget request and, amazingly enough, the issue brief turns out to be right. The administration proposes that procurement and R&D — the two main weapons accounts — should increase from $185 billion in fiscal 2010 to $189 billion in fiscal 2011. That may not be much of a change after inflation, but it isn’t a decline either. This is the second year that the Obama team has supported an increase in weapons outlays, and in the case of the 2011 request, nobody can claim Obama inherited a budget from his predecessor that couldn’t be reworked in the available time. Apparently, the Obama Administration favors robust funding of weapons programs. In fact, if we add in weapons purchases funded outside the regular budget for overseas contingencies and various contracted services, the domestic demand for military goods and services approaches $300 billion annually under Obama. As liberal blogger Laura Flanders wryly commented this week, “Take that you Nobel committee!”
So what does the Obama affinity for arms merchants mean? That the Democrats have outgrown their post-Vietnam anti-militarism? That keeping a Republican defense secretary in place stifles the Left’s ability to implement its priorities? That being at war forces political parties to forego their normal priorities? Well, I don’t really know, but the statistical methodology supporting the Epstein model was quite rigorous, so I’m reluctant to simply dismiss the model on the basis of two years of contrary results. On the other hand, we know that Democrats presided over four of the five big military buildups in the last century, so there’s nothing mechanistically inevitable about the determination of Democrats to slash weapons spending.
It is still possible that Obama will reduce weapons outlays in later years. After all, the government is spending $4 billion per day that it does not have, and Obama arrived at the White House with a fairly imposing domestic agenda. But here’s an alternative explanation for why the political causality model of variations in weapons spending might have gotten the Obama era wrong. Two of the Democratic administrations elected during the 50-year period Epstein tested came into office right after big wars ended. Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, shortly after the last Americans had been run out of Vietnam, and Bill Clinton came to power right after the Cold War ended. With the exception of those two presidencies, Republicans tended to dominate the era. So maybe the impact of party control on weapons spending was more a reflection of the times when Democrats served than it was a reflection of their political convictions. Or maybe voters tend not to trust Democrats with control of the government unless they think military threats are receding. Whatever the explanation, President Obama just isn’t approaching weapons spending the way most of us so-called experts expected.
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