GOP’s Midterm Back-Up Plan—National Security
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The Fiscal Times
April 3, 2014

Get ready to hear Republicans hammer President Obama and congressional Democrats on matters of defense and national security leading up to the midterm elections in November.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) on Tuesday unveiled a proposal to balance the budget in 10 years with $5.1 trillion in spending cuts. The only area that would see an increase is defense.

That same day, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), deputy majority whip, cited the Ryan budget plan and national security as the top campaign issues for Republicans after Obamacare.

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“National security is now reemerging as an issue, given, frankly, the weakness of the American response over the Ukrainian issue and the hot-button issues like the Iranian nuclear arms discussions and the Palestinian-Israeli dispute,” Cole told MSNBC. “We’re for a more robust defense, we’re for a stronger foreign policy in general. It’s a pretty traditional Republican issue.”

Ryan’s budget plan would boost defense spending every year through 2024, when it would be $696 billion. In 2016, Pentagon spending would be $566.5 billion. The Obama administration’s defense budget request for fiscal 2015 calls for $496 billion. That doesn’t include an additional $28 billion request for other defense programs and a forthcoming request for more spending in Afghanistan.

“Today in U.S. defense policy, there are two big mismatches: first, between the threats we face and the resources we’ve committed to meeting them, and second, between our stated policy and the budget that the President has requested,” Ryan wrote in his proposal. “This budget seeks to resolve these contradictions by restoring defense budgets to the levels dictated by the national-security interests of the nation. This budget rejects the President’s additional cuts to national security.”

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Bringing defense and national security to the fore comes at a time when the U.S. is drawing down troop levels in Afghanistan and has no combat troops in Iraq. Additionally, polling suggests that Obama isn’t losing support for his handling of the situation in Ukraine.

A Rasmussen Reports survey on March 16-17 found that 45 percent of likely voters rate Obama’s handling of national security issues as good or excellent, his highest rating since October. Gallup polling shows that Obama’s overall approval rating has improved slightly since Russia invaded Crimea in late February.

“It’s very difficult to make national security an issue during the midterms,” said Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University. “Right now that doesn’t look like a winning issue. There hasn’t been some huge setback to American security” he said, noting that even the situation in Crimea doesn’t directly affect many Americans.

Still, midterm elections are all about a referendum on the sitting president, and this election cycle is no different. By highlighting global security threats, Republicans are pointing the finger of blame at the president, who conducts foreign policy and is the commander-in-chief.

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Criticizing national security and defense policies also insulates lawmakers in Washington since they aren’t seen as taking the lead on those issues, as evidenced by how long it took Democrats and Republicans to agree on legislation in support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Republicans are mounting an effort to become the majority in the Senate. That would give them control of both chambers since Democrats are not expected to reclaim the House.

Drawing attention to national security is likely an effort to increase turnout among Republicans who want another chance to vote against Obama, Lichtman said. “If Republicans are going to do well it’ll be for one reason – because people will vote no. The no factor is a very big factor in American politics.”

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A senior writer for The Fiscal Times based in Washington, D.C., Timothy Homan covers defense and national security matters. He previously worked as an economics and congressional reporter for Bloomberg News and covered international trade for Congressional Quarterly.