On Defense Cuts, Both Parties Are Far Out of Step With Voters

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An unusual new survey shows the average American favors cutting the Pentagon budget by $103 billion -- far more than Obama or Republicans have proposed.

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While politicians, insiders, and experts may be divided over how much the government should spend on the nation's defense, there's a surprising consensus among the public about what should be done: They want to cut spending far more deeply than either the Obama Administration or the Republicans.

That's according to the results of an innovative, new, nationwide survey by the Center for Public integrity, the Program for Public Consultation, and the Stimson Center. Not only does the public want deep cuts, it wants those cuts to encompass spending in virtually every military domain -- air power, sea power, ground forces, nuclear weapons, and missile defenses.

According to the survey, in which respondents were told about the size of the budget as well as shown expert arguments for and against spending cuts, two-thirds of Republicans and nine in 10 Democrats supported making immediate cuts -- a position at odds with the leaderships of both political parties.

The average total cut was around $103 billion, a substantial portion of the current $562 billion base defense budget, while the majority supported cutting it at least $83 billion. These amounts both exceed a threatened cut of $55 billion at the end of this year under so-called "sequestration" legislation passed in 2011, which Pentagon officials and lawmakers alike have claimed would be devastating.

"When Americans look at the amount of defense spending compared to spending on other programs, they see defense as the one that should take a substantial hit to reduce the deficit," said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation and the lead developer of the survey. "Clearly the polarization that you are seeing on the floor of the Congress is not reflective of the American people."

A broad disagreement with the Obama Administration's current spending approach -- keeping the defense budget mostly level -- was shared by 75 percent of men and 78 percent of women, all of whom instead backed immediate cuts. That view was also shared by at least 69 percent of every one of four age groups from 18 to 60 and older, although those aged 29 and below expressed much higher support, at 92 percent.

Disagreement with the Obama administration's continued spending on the war in Afghanistan was particularly intense, with 85 percent of respondents expressing support for a statement that said in part, "it is time for the Afghan people to manage their own country and for us to bring our troops home." A majority of respondents backed an immediate cut, on average, of $38 billion in the war's existing $88 billion budget, or around 43 percent.

Despite the public's distance from Obama's defense budget, the survey disclosed an even larger gap between majority views and proposals by House Republicans this week to add $3 billion for an extra naval destroyer, a new submarine, more missile defenses, and some weapons systems the Pentagon has proposed to cancel. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has similarly endorsed a significant rise in defense spending.

When it comes to military forces, respondents on average favored at least a 27 percent cut in spending on nuclear arms -- the largest proportional cut of any in the survey. They also supported, on average, a 23 percent cut for ground forces, a 17 percent cut for air power, and a 14 percent cut for missile defenses. Modest majorities also said they favored dumping some major individual weapons programs, including the costly F-35 jet fighter, a new long-range strategic bomber, and construction of a new aircraft carrier.

"Clearly the polarization that you are seeing on the floor of the Congress is not reflective of the American people."

"Surveyed Americans cut to considerably deeper levels than policymakers are willing to support in an election season," said Matthew Leatherman, an analyst with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Project at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit research and policy analysis organization.

While Republicans generally favored smaller cuts, they overwhelmingly agreed with both independents and Democrats that current military budgets are too large. A majority of Republicans diverged only on cutting spending for special forces, missile defenses, and new ground force capabilities.

The survey, which was conducted in April, was designed differently than many polls on defense spending, which have asked respondents only if they support a cut. Its aim was instead to probe public attitudes more comprehensively, and so it supplied respondents with neutral information about how funds are currently being spent while exposing them to carefully drafted, representative arguments made by advocates in the contemporary debate. The respondents then said what they wished to spend in key areas.

The survey's methodology and the number of respondents -- 665 people randomly selected to represent the national population -- render its conclusions statistically reliable to within 5 percent, according to the Program on Public Consultation.

Somewhat surprisingly, all of the pro and con arguments about cutting defense spending attracted majority support, suggesting that respondents found many elements in the positions of each side that they considered reasonable. It also suggests that the survey fairly summarized contrasting viewpoints.

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R. Jeffrey Smith is managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom.

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