To trim the deficit, Americans favor much deeper reductions at the Pentagon than their leaders do.
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.
VIDEO: What kind of defense budget would the American public make?
Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation; Matthew Leatherman, analyst, Stimson’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense project; and R. Jeffrey Smith, managing editor for national security, Center for Public Integrity discuss the findings of their defense spending poll on May 10, 2012, at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
The discretionary budget is what Congress has the chance to decide every year. This graphic shows the relative level of expenditures on different programs. The disparities provoked broad surprise in the survey, although other ways of comparing defense and non-defense spending prompted less surprise.
The military has long prided itself on the medical and other benefits it supplies members, both active duty and retired.
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.
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.
“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 that helped develop the survey.
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, which conducted it.
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.
Sixty-one percent agreed, for example, with a statement that the U.S. has special defense responsibilities because it is an exceptional nation, while 72 percent said the country is “playing the role of military policeman too much.” Fifty-four percent agreed that cutting defense spending is problematic because it will cause job losses, while 81 percent — in one of the largest points of consensus — agreed with a statement that the budget had “a lot of waste” and that members of Congress regularly approve unneeded spending just to benefit their own supporters.
The survey suggested, in short, that most people do not see the issue in starkly black or white terms, but instead hold complex views about the appropriate relationship between defense spending and America’s role in the world. “Most Americans are able to hold two competing ideas in their mind and, unlike Congress, thoughtfully recognize the merits of both,” Kull explained. “And then [they] still come to hard and even bold decisions.”
The survey also showed that Americans react differently when given data on the current defense budget in different contexts — providing some insight into how partisans on each side of the debate might tailor their arguments to attract support.
When framed, for example, in the context of military spending by other countries, or the portion of the so-called annual discretionary budget devoted to defense, or the amount of money spent for defense during the Cold War, most respondents said they were surprised by how large the U.S. budget is now. But when compared to the overall size of the U.S. economy, or the size of the other two leviathans in the federal budget — U.S. spending on Medicare or Social Security — most respondents said they were not surprised.
By far the most durable finding — even after hearing strong arguments to the contrary — was that existing spending levels are simply too high. Respondents were asked twice, in highly different ways, to say what they thought the budget should be, and a majority supported roughly the same answer each time: a cut of at least 11 to 13 percent (they cut on average 18 to 22 percent).
In one exercise, a larger group chose to cut the defense budget (62 percent supported this) than to cut non-defense spending (50 percent) or to raise taxes (27 percent). They then chose to cut deeply as a means to address the deficit. In yet another exercise, respondents first read pro and con arguments for the nine major mission areas that now compose almost 90 perce of the budget; then a majority of Republicans and Democrats then selected lower levels in eight of the nine areas.
For example, two-thirds of the respondents, including 78 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of independents, cut spending on nuclear arms. Respondents on average also sought to cut ground forces the largest dollar amount. The sole program that attracted average support for more spending was the Pentagon’s effort to development new capabilities for ground forces, but the suggested increase was slight and mostly embraced by Republicans and independents.
Majorities took these steps even though they expressed slightly higher support, on average, for statements in favor of these programs than critical of them. Most notably, they said they were convinced that air power is important (77 percent), special forces are valuable (79 percent), and missile defense efforts are worth pursuing (74 percent), while giving arguments for the Navy and ground forces less backing (69 percent and 57 percent, respectively).
While most programs got either a trim or a buzz cut in the public salon, several won outright support. A majority opposed cutting the controversial V-22 Osprey, an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane. Even after being told its cancellation would save $1 billion, a clear majority backed its continued production. And even while most respondents favored killing the new strategic bomber, they solidly backed continuing to use bombers to carry nuclear arms as part of a “triad” of forces, alongside land and sea based missiles.
Whether the weight of public attitudes will be felt in Congress and the White House is unclear. As close students of Washington know, legislative outcomes here are often determined not by average views, but by the passionate convictions of noisy minorities. As a result, it’s worth noting which arguments attracted not just support from solid majorities but high rankings as “very convincing.”
These are summaries of some of those arguments: It is time to let the Afghanis fend for themselves (43 percent called this very convincing). There is a lot of waste in the defense budget (39 percent very convincing). Special forces are useful and effective (36 percent very convincing). We are playing the role of world policeman too much (29 percent very convincing). Missile defenses could help defend us (27 percent very convincing). Air power is critical (26 percent very convincing). Nuclear arms serve little purpose now (26 percent very convincing). Defense spending weakens other parts of the economy (25 percent very convincing).
“Americans’ views as expressed in this survey are a big reason why policymakers — after the election — are likely to tighten the Pentagon’s strategy and cut national defense spending more deeply,” said Leatherman, the Stimson Center analyst.