Austerity, R.I.P.

Republicans are suddenly not so concerned about the debt.

F-35 joint-strike fighter

Prototype of the F-35 fighter, a subject of much debate in the defense budget

Photo courtesy Lockheed-Martin via Getty Images.

The seventh floor of the Newseum, Washington’s monument to the journalism trade, is a swank enough space for events and parties. Nice access to the roof. Clean escape route for caterers. More TV screens than you need unless you’re brainwashing some droogs.

I first visited the seventh floor in early 2010, when it was taken over for the launch of a new magazine, Fiscal Times. Funded in part by Pete Peterson, the former commerce secretary turned finger-in-every-pot austerity guru, the magazine had soft-launched with a series of pieces about the momentum for spending cuts. That night, as bartenders mixed our drinks, Peterson told us that the age of fiscal responsibility was at hand, and we’d all be there to cover it.

This Tuesday, I returned to the Newseum conference rooms to watch Republicans end the austerity movement. The Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank that has been amplifying the voices of conservative hawks since 2009, gathered friends and media to talk about the challenges of the second Obama term. First among them: defense cuts, the ones in the “sequester” of the 2011 debt-limit deal. Republicans needed to stop them. Sen. Jon Kyl, the retiring GOP whip from Arizona, informed us that he’d been going back over his papers and rediscovering great wisdom.

“Ronald Reagan, he had a lot of great stuff,” said Kyl. “And one of the things he said was: You know, I’ve seen a lot of wars in my life. None of them were caused because we were too strong.”

And according to Kyl, America could not be strong if it allowed the sequester to bite down. The final debt deal, supported by a majority of Republicans and Democrats, offered Washington a choice between $1.2 trillion of cuts to spending and a supercommittee that would get a chance to develop smarter, less blunt cuts. The supercommittee failed, so those spending cuts—$600 billion each to defense and nondefense budgets over 10 years—are scheduled to start on Jan. 2, 2013.

It’s not perfect. Actually, more than that, the plan was designed to be lousy, so politicians would panic and find smarter cuts elsewhere in their budgets. But it’s austerity, and for three-odd years, conservatives have been telling us we need austerity. Any less would be “generational theft,” the government had to balance its budget just like any household or business—and so on. You remember Glenn Beck. You heard all of this.

Unfortunately, the country that conservatives want to govern can’t really be austere. “Part of the price of leadership is having an adequate defense to meet the commitments you have around the world,” said Kyl.

“I was chatting with people in the reception room, reminiscing,” said Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and FPI co-founder. “I was in government 20 years ago. We could not do the first Gulf War now.”

“Right!” said Kyl.

“Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 1, 1990,” said Kristol. “We had 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia Maybe we didn’t need 500,000, but it was a nice margin of comfort, and that war went pretty well, and it was a pretty good model. Maybe it ended a bit early, but that’s another story.”

We haven’t heard this sort of reminiscing for a while. Since 2010, the most cited cliché about security and spending came from Adm. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told an Ohio audience that the national debt was the “greatest threat to national security.” Kyl flipped that around: “You can’t have a strong economy unless you have a strong defense.”

Sure, this was a retiring Republican talking. He might leave the Senate and devote himself to more lucrative campaigns for military spending, and he wouldn’t be the first defense hawk to do so. But every other Republican on the stage was with him. Tom Cotton, an incoming congressman from Arkansas, said that voters “kind of intuitively understand” that when “you’ve got to fund the government, the first priority is a real strong military.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois freshman, warned that America could lose wars only if Americans had “our will defeated.” The 2007 surge into Iraq was a perfect example of a bigger, bolder military: “It was not necessarily the addition of 20,000 troops, it was the message it sent.”

Whether the sequester survives or falls, this is mainstream Republican opinion. A fiscal hawk like Rand Paul can talk about “jettisoning some of the crap” in the military budget, and he’ll draw curious reporters into his tractor beam. But seven months ago, nearly every House Republican voted to restore all the lost defense spending, finding the cuts in welfare programs instead.

It’s an awkward position to be in, because it puts the lie to the whole “fiscal cliff” concept. The “fiscal crisis” of 2009 onward was, allegedly, the national debt. A “cliff” sounds like the sort of thing you teeter over in a major crisis. And yet “going over the cliff” means accepting $1.2 trillion in cuts—more than $200 billion in 2013—and bringing back tax rates that raised more revenue than the current rates. It would be, by miles, the most significant whack at the deficit in American history. It would also wreck the economy, even though Republicans said in 2010 and 2011 that a tighter budget would in itself help the economy.

“Keynesian economists believe that if the government doesn’t spend money, bad times ensue,” explained Kyl. “I reject that. They are correct that these automatic across-the-board cuts to both the nondefense discretionary part of the budget and the defense part would be devastating. I just disagree on the reasons why.” But he didn’t give an alternate reason.

There really isn’t one. Republicans in areas affected by defense cuts campaigned against them. The hawkish, interventionist wing of the party can’t succeed if the cuts aren’t stopped. The most forward-looking part of the FPI’s conference came when the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy chatted with Sen. John McCain. They quickly agreed that America needed to intervene in Syria, setting up a partial no-fly zone and arming rebels. “War weariness is a big factor,” said McCain, griping about the possible opposition. “People are very weary, and there’s a fear of getting into a prolonged conflict.” But that would be overcome. So would the defense cuts.

“I know you cannot deal without that,” said Levy after the panel. “I know you cannot neglect this aspect of things. It is not my specialty, but I am realistic. I am pragmatic. I knew, during the Libyan war, how important it was to take into account the pragmatic aspect of things. So we cannot just make idealistic preachings—but my thought is that the cost is greater if you do not do it.”

Republicans agree with the French philosopher on this one: No more cuts!