Mitt Romney, accepting the Republican nomination for president, blasted President Obama for “his trillion dollar cuts” to the military that would endanger America’s security. Right on cue, the crowd in Tampa booed. His running mate, Paul Ryan, has been hammering this message in key swing states for weeks, detailing specific—and significant—job losses if Obama’s “reckless defense cuts” take effect.
The issue has quickly become central to the GOP argument. On Friday, the campaign released ads in five swing states warning that "President Obama's defense cuts" could cost tens of thousands of jobs. It was the prelude to a weekend of the ticket advancing the point on television and the campaign trail.
The goal is to persuade voters in defense-heavy battleground states that their jobs would be safer if Romney and Ryan win the White House. From a political standpoint, the tactic holds potential to affect the outcome of the election. But there are a couple of problems with it. First, Obama and his defense secretary, Leon Panetta, have also said they would prefer that the cuts not take effect. Second, the job loss projections used by the GOP ticket are misleading.
Romney, in crucial swing areas like Jacksonville, Fla., has gone so far as to say Obama wants to cut $1 trillion from the military budget. But that overstates the case.
The military is facing roughly $500 billion in cuts over the next decade under an August 2011 debt deal agreed to by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. The military has maintained that it can safely make these reductions. An additional $500 billion in military cuts will be triggered automatically Jan. 2 if Congress and the White House fail to agree on a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion.
Obama has agreed with Pentagon leaders and Republicans that these new reductions could harm the military’s capabilities. And Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, voted for the legislation that created the initial round of defense-spending cuts and the sequestration mechanism that could spur even more. “The blame-Obama game is basically dishonest. The Republicans and the Democrats are in this together, and trying to single out one as the bad guy just doesn’t reflect reality,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank that promotes capitalism and a strong national defense.
Still, Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor, says it will be tough for Obama to argue the sweeping cuts aren’t his fault if they happen on his watch. Failure to reach a budget deal should tar both parties, said Feaver, who directs the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. “The difference is: President Obama is running for reelection. So there’s no question that politically it hurts him more than it hurts John Boehner.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other Republicans have been blasting Obama's lack of leadership to mitigate sequestration's effects on defense. Defense contractors meanwhile are threatening to send mass notices of the potential for layoffs before the November elections.
Ryan is presenting dire forecasts for military and defense-related jobs in swing states. He made an emotional appeal to stop sequestration in Virginia, and claimed the defense cuts could cost 55,000 jobs in North Carolina and 44,000 in Pennsylvania. The new Romney ads claim "Obama's" defense cuts would threaten 130,000 jobs in Virginia, 20,000 jobs each in Ohio and Colorado, and thousands more in Florida and North Carolina.
The Pentagon hasn’t yet outlined publicly which programs would be cut or scaled back under sequestration, so there is no definitive way to predict exactly how many jobs will be lost, what kinds, and in which states.The Pentagon last year predicted the sequester could slash up to 1.5 million jobs, but spokeswoman Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins said there will be updated projections later this year.
There are several problems with the numbers:
- Ryan drew his state-by-state estimates from a controversial June report by the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank, which pulls its estimates for defense-related job losses from a disputed assessment by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. That report, commissioned by the Aerospace Industries Association, found last year that more than 1 million American jobs could be lost due to defense cuts under sequestration. The figures in the new ads come from a July study by the same GMU center, also commissioned by the AIA. William Hartung, a defense analyst at the Center for International Policy, said the first report “vastly overstate(s) the ripple effect of Pentagon spending, to the point that their numbers are almost twice what a more reasonable estimate would suggest.” This approach, Hartung said via e-mail, “may inflate the claimed job loss by nearly 500,000 jobs.” He said that the second study has the same problems because the methodology was the same.
- Since the Center for Security Policy released its estimates and the two GMU reports were published, Obama has announced he would exempt military personnel accounts from sequestration, a move likely meant to ease troops' worries about losing their pay next year. The decision also means severe reductions in active duty troops and military bases are less likely.
- Ryan accidentally misspoke in North Carolina, his spokesman Brendan Buck said, after National Journal asked about the numbers he was using. The CSP report projects about 35,000 defense-related job losses in that state, not 55,000, as Ryan had said.
Ryan argues that Republicans have proposed a way to spare cuts to the Pentagon. But that bill, which passed the House in May without a single Democratic vote, would replace them with steep reductions in non-defense accounts like Medicaid and food stamps.
Due to Obama’s exemptions for military personnel, the two categories of voters worst hit by the cuts would likely be civilians who work for the military and defense industry workers. But preserving military industry jobs by cutting deeply into domestic programs might also result in a net loss of jobs, Hartung said, because they would be "counterbalanced to some degree by layoffs of nurses, teachers, police, firefighters and other public-sector workers."
Democrats appear to have public opinion on their side. A July survey found roughly three-quarters of voters from both Democratic and Republican House districts actually want the country to spend less on defense in tight fiscal times. The Program for Public Consultation, which conducted the survey with the Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity, also said its findings showed no statistical correlation between the level of defense spending in a district and the level of support for defense cuts.
Obama has signed a new law that requires his administration to provide details about how sequestration would affect defense and domestic programs, and the report is expected in the coming days. The painful details of the cuts will give each side an opportunity—for the Romney-Ryan ticket to convince voters Republicans can save their defense-related jobs, and Democrats to convince them the GOP would do that by throwing other types of jobs and services under the bus. The clock is ticking.
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