In the last GOP Debate–what was arguably the first actual debate of the election season–one of the most fiery discussions was on defense spending policies. Naturally, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) walked the libertarian line against Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), with Paul arguing that defense spending was, at a certain level, not very “conservative.” He boldly asked, mostly of Sen. Rubio, “Can you be a conservative, and be liberal on military spending?”
This audacious question sparked a fire under Sen. Rubio that prompted to say, in one of the biggest lines of the night, that “I know that Rand is a committed isolationist, I’m not.” He built his platform on the issue, claiming that “we can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe,” and that “the world is a safer place when America is the strongest military power in the world.”
Sen. Ted Cruz followed up in Reagan-esque fashion, remarking that “we have to defend this nation. You think defending this nation is expensive. See how expensive it becomes not defending it.”
So how are “conservatives” supposed to think about defense spending? The field of potential candidates is all over the place on this particular issue.
We can break this down into three non-exhaustive categories of approach: isolationists, budget-minded expansionists, and pure expansionists
First, we have the isolationist: Sen. Rand Paul. He tries to separate himself from a crowded field to argue that we spend too much on national defense. (I wouldn’t cast this stone so fast, if I were him: just eight months ago, he proposed a plan that called “for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years—a roughly 16 percent increase.”)
Our second category, represented by Sen. Cruz, consists of those who want to increase spending without increasing our gargantuan deficit.
Finally, we have our third category, represented by Sen. Rubio, that wants to increase defense spending significantly. Notice, however, that this third category lacks the caveats that appear in the first two.
Of the three options, Paul’s is the only one that actually proposes a downsizing of our military spending. Paul probably justifies this position by disengaging the US from a majority of its current global involvement, meaning that defense funds are being spent internally rather than externally. He emphasized this at the debate, claiming that “you can be strong without being involved in every civil war around the world.” While this position may not win more hawkish Republicans, it opens him up to eager–but less radical–libertarians, as well as anti-war conservatives who feel alienated within the GOP.
With all of the terrible tragedies going on in the world, including recent events in Paris, we need to be ready. This cannot be doubted. But if our defense is that important, how do we pay for it? In my view, the clearest option for any real conservative is to cut frivolous spending, which would free up funds to protect America’s top priority: its existence.