Paul Pillar

Informed Americans Favor Cutting Defense Spending

An innovative poll, conducted jointly by the Center for Public Integrity, Program for Public Consultation and the Stimson Center and discussed this week at the Council for Foreign Relations, provides a perspective on American public attitudes toward defense spending that would be hard to glean from anything heard in political campaigns, including the current one. Most traditional polls that simply ask out of the blue for a view on whether spending on the U.S. military should be increased, decreased or stay about the same get as the predominant response that it ought to stay about the same. The new poll investigated what Americans favor if confronted with relevant data as well as arguments on each side of the issue of defense spending.

The poll began by providing each respondent information about current U.S. spending in several different frameworks: in comparison with other discretionary programs, with entitlements, with previous years' defense budgets (both in constant dollars and as a percentage of GDP), and with defense spending of allies and potential adversaries—in other words, in just about every possible way in which the data could be framed. Respondents were asked after each framing whether defense spending was more, less or about the same as what they had expected. “More” responses significantly outnumbered overall the “less” responses. Next the respondents were presented with equal numbers of arguments that explained the main reasons people either oppose or favor cuts in U.S. defense spending. The arguments put the most reasonable face on each side of the issue. Respondents were asked after each argument whether it was convincing. Every argument—those against as well as those in favor of spending cuts—was convincing to a majority of those polled.

It was only after reading the data and the arguments, and being reminded of what the actual defense budget is for 2012, that the respondents were finally asked what they think should be spent on national defense for 2013. A large majority (76 percent) would cut the budget, with only 10 percent favoring an increase. The average of all the amounts proposed represented a cut from 2012 of $127 billion. Possibly a more meaningful figure—to reduce the effect of extreme outliers—was the minimum amount that a majority of respondents would cut: a majority favored a cut of at least $83 billion. Differences according to party affiliation were in the expected direction, but even a majority of Republicans favored cuts of at least $50 billion (Democrats would cut at least $106 billion).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the comparison of these results with those of the simple out-of-the-blue questions about defense spending can be summarized this way: uninformed Americans may support maintaining current defense spending, but informed Americans favor substantial cuts.

So why have the politics of this issue shaped up the way they have, with one presidential candidate proposing large increases in defense spending and without hearing much from other leaders that sounds equivalent to the crash course in defense budgets that respondents received in the course of taking this poll? The short answer is that most Americans are ill-informed about such matters, it has never been politically advantageous to believe otherwise and it is unrealistic to think a political campaign can be made into a crash course on anything.

A more immediate factor concerns the threat of sequestration that emerged from the Congressional supercommittee's failure to reach a budget agreement. That threat, with the possibility of substantial defense cuts next year, appears to be about the only thing with any chance of inducing even a hint of flexibility about revenue raising among hitherto inflexible Congressional Republicans. The Obama administration and Secretary of Defense Panetta are thus not inclined for the time being to say anything that makes that threat sound less threatening.

More generally, the role that rhetoric about defense spending plays in an election campaign may often be less about defense spending itself than about how such rhetoric is a way to exude toughness and strength on national-security matters. That sort of image burnishing appears to be how Mitt Romney is using the defense-spending issue, especially given the arbitrary, pulled-out-of-a-hat quality that some of his numbers have. The tactic may work. Even some of the same people who when polled favored a level of defense spending far different from Romney's may still respond positively to his tough-guy posture on national security.

In brief, our defense spending is in large part determined by a political process that involves widespread public ignorance, a ham-fisted approach to budget cutting necessitated by one side's refusal to compromise and a he-man approach to debating national security. What a way to make policy. Perhaps once we get past the sequestration business we can have, if not a crash course, at least a national debate that is serious enough and deep enough for the public to make the sorts of choices the poll showed the public can make when it is sufficiently informed.