By Ben Johnson
Every political epoch has one: a third rail, an issue so electric that any mention of it tends to close discussion and slam doors rather than broaden discourse and widen debate. For 65 years, increased military spending has been the sacred cow no politician hoping to capture the Republican presidential nomination dared question. Although GOP stalwarts favored cutting every other area of government, the Cold War required massive expenditures on national defense. As the Communist threat crumbled -- tellingly, under the weight of the arms race, a stagnant economy, and the costs of empire -- conservatives flailed about to find a consensus on the new "unipolar" world. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 acted as a booster shot for national defense. Over decades of political convention, greater military outlays became the distinguishing mark of a patriot. However, the signs of an impending financial meltdown and the fatigue of never-ending nation-building have the American people demanding our fiscal house be set in order -- even if it means cutting defense spending in ways consistent with our national security. At this moment, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson -- the darkest of dark horse candidates in this year's Republican presidential primaries -- hopes the electorate is willing to reconsider one of his party's most settled questions: that military cuts should be out-of-bounds.
Governor Johnson (no relation) sees a looming threat to our national well-being. "My fundamental belief is that the biggest threat to our national security is the fact that we're bankrupt," he said. "Forty-three cents out of every dollar we're spending is being printed. If we don't balance the federal budget, I maintain we're going to have a monetary collapse."
Johnson promises to introduce a balanced budget in 2013, a feat requiring a 43 percent cut in spending. Only a few budget items can be cut deeply enough to realize those kinds of savings: entitlements and national defense. "I do not know how you can have a discussion on cutting what we spend nationally without talking about military spending," Johnson confessed. "I like to start off by talking about Medicaid, Medicare, and military spending."
While reforming entitlements has become a hallmark of political courage in the GOP, that final program could endanger his political health. Undaunted, the very libertarian governor is doing plenty of talking. He has called for a 43 percent cut in defense spending.
"Can we provide a strong national defense for our country and still reduce military spending by 43 percent?" he asked. Answering his own question, he said, "My answer is: Yes. And the operative word would be "defense,' as opposed to offense -- as opposed to nation-building."
Cuts that deep require a reassessment of the defense apparatus and America's place in the world. Johnson would immediately end our interventions in Iraq, which he opposed from the beginning, and Afghanistan, where he says the United States long ago met its military objective and is now bogged down in the fractious and perilous infighting between domestic factions. Johnson opposed Barack Obama's war in Libya from the outset.
A balanced budget will require more than extracting ourselves from perpetual war. Johnson would end the Cold War-era policy of providing other nations' defense against a non-existent threat -- e.g., U.S. troops protecting West Germany from an invasion by East Germany. "We have 100,000 troops on the ground in Europe. I'm just going to go out on a limb here and say that 57,000 might cut it," he said. " That would be a 43 percent reduction."
Providing the national defense of foreign nations drains American resources while disfiguring European economics. Since they do not have to protect their own borders, foreign nations have diverted those funds to constructing a cradle-to-grave welfare state. Johnson refers to this as "a massive transfer of American dollars to Europe with little enhancement to our security." "I think other countries need to take up the slack that we haven't even allowed them to take up," the governor told me. This includes nations like Japan and South Korea, where our presence has been a longstanding source of tension.
Ultimately, no corner of the Pentagon would go untouched. His campaign's proposals for force reductions largely reflect those of the Cato Institute, with whom he conferred. They include reducing the number of active forces by one-third, reducing the number of aircraft carriers and not building new warships. "It's personnel, it's procurement, it's intelligence, it's our nuclear capability, it's research and development going forward, it's personnel -- both active military and civilian support." He proposes reducing our nuclear arsenal to 500 warheads. "Do we need to blow up the world 23 times over," he asks, "or would maybe eight times be sufficient?"
Although he occasionally refers to his military cuts as "across-the-board," he emphasizes that he would cut overseas missions by far more than 43 percent, which gives him "leeway" to reduce other areas -- such as intelligence -- by less than 43 percent.
These deep cuts to the military would still leave the United States the world's top military spender. Johnson notes, even after cutting the budget nearly in half, "we're still going to be outspending China by almost a two-to-one margin."
The first Republican President Johnson vows to change the way the United States intervenes abroad, to bring it into accord with the Constitution. He offered his "promise" that "if there is any intervention contemplated by a Johnson administration that will involve Congress and getting authorization to do that. It's too important -- way too important -- to not involve Congress, and [to make sure it is] fundamentally constitutional."
It remains to be seen whether most Republicans are willing to face the consequences of our involvement in Iraq, a war so many justified for so long, or whether they will view the program as weakness before a Tehran desperate to acquire nuclear warheads. Governor Johnson largely blames Iran's ascendancy in the Middle East on the unintended consequences of U.S. foreign policy. "Iran had one, real military foe, and they were completely consumed with thwarting that military foe, and that was Iraq," he said. "Iran is rearing its head right now because it doesn't have to worry about Iraq." While he believes "we should be vigilant," he maintains at this time "there is no military threat from Iran."
It is also unclear if the Tea Party has come to the conclusion that the fiscal responsibility they call for requires reductions to military spending, ideally by restructuring outdated overseas commitments. Governor Johnson is more in line with Reason magazine than WND.com, and he considers the Tea Party "a mixed bag." This is not simply because he disagrees with most of its members on social issues. (Johnson is pro-choice on abortion and favors legalizing marijuana.) He believes some in the Tea Party are not serious enough about cutting the budget. "I think for the most part, the Tea Party recognizes that you need to cut spending by 43 percent, but I always find it amazing that the person at the Tea Party rally chanting "reduce government spending, balance the budget!' might also be holding a sign that says "But not the military,' or might also be holding a sign that says, "Don't touch my Medicare.' That's not possible."
Johnson is hardly a bead-wearing leftist. He proposes slashing the entire federal budget, including, for example, abolishing the Department of Education (as Ronald Reagan promised in 1980). The only other candidate to offer such deep cuts -- which are music to Tea Party voters' ears -- is Ron Paul.
The Tea Party may never have to make a decision about his policies, because it may never get to hear him. While the media regularly ignore Ron Paul, they have marginalized Gary Johnson completely. The two-term governor has been excluded from virtually all Republican debates by a set of rules he deems "arbitrary." Johnson's record as the man who vetoed more bills than all other sitting governors combined, earning the nickname "Governor Veto" while serving as governor of a deep-blue state from 1994-2003 should make him at least as credible as, say, Herman Cain. Yet each debate's criteria leaves him just below the cut. Asked about the exclusion, Johnson finds it hard not to be cynical. "It appears as though they all get together and invoke the "Gary Johnson Rule,' which is: How do we exclude Gary Johnson from the debate?" he said. "I'm just getting this sense that they actually sit down ahead of time and come up with the rule after they take a look at me. I can't help but think that."
It is easy to question debate organizers' motives when they established an arbitrary threshold of four percent specifically so they could include Jon Huntsman. Huntsman has no more chance of being the GOP nominee than Johnson, and his positions are less appealing to the party's base. Yet Huntsman is the media favorite while Johnson is the media's whipping-boy.
Johnson is far from delusional or conspiratorial. "I appreciate the fact that I'm in last place," he said. "I mean, I'm reality-based here: I'm in last place." His campaign hopes to break through in New Hampshire, the early primary state most in tune with his philosophy of governing. Although he states he has "put all my chips on the table in New Hampshire," he added, "I've always thought there's a real possibility here to win California." New Hampshire is at the beginning of the primary season, California near its end, where it often occurs as an irrelevance. A strong showing even after the nomination is secured could give his message resonance. Outside of blue states like California, Johnson's position on social issues render him unpalatable in a way his pro-life counterpart, Ron Paul, is not.
Whether one agrees with Governor Johnson's assessment of which military cuts are possible or desirable, he is a credible candidate who deserves a chance to be heard. Other than Ron Paul, no other candidate is delivering this wake-up call to the Tea Party: Wall Street banks, labor unions, and infrastructure projects are not the only programs threatening our long-term fiscal stability. The nation needs to have a clear-headed debate on the size, scope, and permanence of overseas adventurism and stateside military spending. Gary Johnson is rendering the nation a service by raising the issue.
All quotations in this article are taken from two conferences calls this author attended with Gov. Gary Johnson, on August 10 and August 30, 2011, respectively.