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By Jack Hunter || In my latest column for The Charleston City Paper I attempt to illustrate an issue that distinguishes Sen. Jim DeMint as a genuine limited government conservative from a Republican who is not, Sen. Lindsey Graham:

Austerity may be a bad word to Graham when it comes to Pentagon spending, but for DeMint it’s the very definition of conservatism. When Republicans like DeMint and his Senate ally Rand Paul say that Pentagon spending cuts must happen, Republicans like Graham and his Senate ally John McCain call such actions “isolationist.”

The Greenville News wrote of my column:

“Graham and DeMint have frequently sought to downplay their differences in public. Here, however, Hunter zooms in on defense spending and highlights the differences.”

Indeed. Being on the right side of this difference between DeMint and Graham is paramount for Tea Partiers and limited government conservatives. In fact, if the GOP is to ever become the party that finally addresses America’s debt problem, it is imperative that Republicans embrace DeMint’s position and reject Graham’s.

The United States is $15.2 trillion in debt, which President Obama wants to take to $16.4 trillion. We now run annual deficits of about $1.5 trillion. Entitlements are unquestionably our greatest economic drain. The second greatest problem is what is commonly designated as defense spending or national security-related spending. Former associate deputy attorney general to President Reagan, Bruce Fein breaks down the numbers based on President Obama’s 2012 budget request:

The baseline request for the Department of Defense (DOD) is $558 billion. The supplemental request to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is $118 billion. The request for the Department of Energy’s development and housing of nuclear weapons is $19.3 billion. DOD has $7.8 billion requested for “Miscellaneous.” The State Department requests $8.7 billion for counterterrorism programs. An additional $71.6 billion is requested for homeland security counterterrorism, including $18.1 billion for DOD and $53.5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services. National Intelligence Programs are budgeted for $53.1 billion. The Department of Veterans Affairs requests $129.3 billion to treat wounded veterans, a figure that is climbing exponentially as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental and emotional traumas.

The foreign affairs budget, including both its military and counterterrorism components, is $18 billion. Payments to military and DOD civilian retirees are budgeted at $68.5 billion. Interest on the national debt attributed to past borrowing to fund the Pentagon is $185 billion.

This brings the national security budget of the United States for FY 2012 to a staggering total exceeding $1.2 trillion, or approximately one-third of the entire budget and almost 100 percent of the projected budget deficit.

The Greenville News also reports …

“It’s worth noting Graham has said he supports $400 million in defense cuts.” $400 million does little to address a $1.2 trillion expenditure. The most aggressive GOP plan that has attempted to substantively address the deficit was put forth by Sen. Rand Paul in March of 2011. Paul’s plan would have balanced the budget in five years and reduce the national debt by $4 trillion. Paul’s plan sought not simply to stop or reform spending—but to cut it—something virtually all conservatives now agree must happen, at least in theory.

Yet, Paul’s proposal failed in the Senate 7-90. All seven “yea” votes were Republican.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina was one of those Republicans. During an interview on WTMA talk radio in Charleston in July 2011, morning host Richard Todd asked Sen. Lindsey Graham about Sen. DeMint’s “yea” vote: “I wanted to ask you Sen. Graham because I know you want to try to get us out of debt. Sen. Rand Paul proposed a budget … that got seven votes … one of them was Jim DeMint … one of them was not yours … so we want to know why you would not have supported a budget that would have balanced the budget in five years, getting serious about it?”

Replied Graham:

“I’m not going to vote for any budget that reduces defense spending by over 40 percent. And I’m not going to vote for any budget that reduces our defense capabilities at a time we’re under threat.”

Does Sen. Graham believe Sen. DeMint voted for a bill that would actually hurt our military? Does Graham really believe DeMint would have supported a bill that would hurt America? Or does Graham simply have a particular vision for America’s military that he believes justifies continuing to rack up deficits and debt?

In his new book Now or Never: Saving America from Economic Collapse, DeMint explains practical military limits in an age of austerity:

“Sen. Rand Paul has pointed out that there are two extremes in foreign policy — being everywhere all the time or being nowhere none of the time,” he writes. “Currently, the United States is far closer to the first extreme of trying to do too much in too many places. Of course, America must have the ability to defend our nation and our interests around the world, but … we simply can no longer afford to intervene in every crisis around the world.”

But Graham believes we must intervene around the world. In fact, he wants to intervene more. As I note in my current column at the Charleston City Paper:

We know that Graham believes America should still be in Iraq; he has said we need a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan, has supported our intervention in Libya, has floated the idea of military action in Syria, and has no qualms about a war with Iran.

This is less an argument over what Republicans think about foreign policy than it is over how Republicans will finally approach government spending. Sen. DeMint is saying our foreign policy must change because we can no longer afford the cost. Sen. Graham is saying our current foreign policy must continue and even expand at any cost.

You can accept DeMint’s premise or you can accept Graham’s, but you cannot accept both. And on which side of this argument the GOP takes it’s stand will decide just how serious Republicans are about actually—and finally—cutting spending, limiting government and the core things Republicans always say they’ll do.