With more than 17 cents of every dollar earned in Virginia — and about one in five jobs — directly or indirectly dependent on the Department of Defense, it’s easy to understand the role that military policies could play in the coming presidential contest.
National elections typically turn on the state of the economy and, on its face, things don’t look good on that score for President Barack Obama. Thanks to the booming Washington suburbs, the overall picture in Virginia isn’t bad; only 10 states had lower unemployment rates in October, for example. What’s increasingly worrisome for the state’s economy, however, are the deep cuts in federal defense spending that have been put on course in the past few months. They would be felt from the naval ports of the Chesapeake Bay to the Marine base at Quantico to the defense contractor offices along the Dulles corridor.
This summer, the first round of efforts to reduce the federal deficit set in motion $450 billion in Pentagon funding reductions over the next 10 years. Now that the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction has failed to come up with a plan for narrowing the budget gap by at least $1.2 trillion, the military has become subject to potential automatic cuts of about $500 billion over 10 years.
Reductions of that scale — representing about 20 percent of the military’s planned spending during the coming decade — almost certainly will cost the state jobs and income, although probably not to any great degree until 2013, after the presidential election is decided.
Will voters pre-emptively blame Obama or Congress, Democrats or Republicans? The uncertainty is palpable among Virginia politicians in both parties, who acknowledge Washington’s inability to come to grips with the challenges it faces and the fact that voters are angry over their impotence — but who dispute what is the root cause of the gridlock.
What’s not in dispute is that the Virginia defense establishment has disproportionate skin in the game. With issues such as the closure this year of Joint Forces Command, the talk of reductions in military retirement benefits, the Navy’s desire to move a carrier to Florida from its home in Norfolk, and the potential shift of four cruisers from Norfolk to Spain, Virginians in uniform — and the civilians who work with them — have plenty of reasons to cast a wary eye toward Washington.
“This is an administration that is going to cost Virginia an awful lot in terms of the economics here, and that will ultimately have some play in who people decide to vote for to be president of the United States,” said Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, who represents southeastern Virginia and is chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. “Whether or not it is a tipping point, I don’t think any one of us will know for some time.”
Democrats, predictably, say the president and his appointees at the Department of Defense are far from exclusively to blame for the fiscal policy standoff that is resulting in the planned military cuts. “Blame has to be placed as much at the feet of the Republicans as it does for the Democrats,” Rep. Jim Moran said. Moran is a senior member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and represents suburbs near Washington.
A Military-Minded Electorate
Three years ago, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia since 1964, and he did so by a comfortable 7 points. The state’s shifting demographics — especially a surge in the racially and ethnically diverse, and solidly Democratic, population of Northern Virginia — helped propel him past John McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and a pre-eminent hawk on the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain had hoped to carry the state with overwhelming support from military-minded voters.
Today, however, remnants of a Democratic surge are hard to spot. Republicans captured the governorship and every other statewide office in 2009, flipped three Democratic House seats to the GOP column last fall and seized control of the state Senate a month ago. Also, Gov. Bob McDonnell remains popular enough that he’s mentioned any time politicians and journalists speculate about possible GOP vice presidential candidates for 2012.
From Winchester to Chesapeake, Virginia is densely populated with military members, former military members and military contractors. It’s home to both the Pentagon and the world’s largest naval base. As a result, the state’s elected officials are keenly aware that their constituents possess a collectively outsized IQ when it comes to national security matters. Many Virginia voters display an unusually detailed understanding of military retiree benefits, veterans benefits, defense spending and related issues.
This is also true, in part, because the state tops all others in per capita military spending — about $7,000 per person. (It’s also No. 1 among the states in the amount of defense contract spending per person.)
“Virginians pay close attention to national security,” said Stan Scott, executive director of the Virginia National Defense Industrial Authority, an agency created to advocate military spending and projects in the state. “National candidates in Virginia that support veterans and military and defense investment in the state will be more successful here.”
As VNDIA notes, in the absence of military spending, Virginia’s economy would be about 16 percent smaller. Without the tax revenue generated by that economic activity, the state’s budget gap would exceed $1 billion.
“You really only need to change percentage points one way or another to change the outcome of an election,” Scott said. “As our recent legislative elections show, Virginians prefer smaller government, but Virginia’s economy depends heavily on federal spending, including defense. So we want to shrink government, but we don’t want to choke our economy. Candidates who can walk this tightrope will be successful.”
The potential effects of the sequester — the across-the-board cuts, split between defense and civilian programs, triggered to take effect in January 2013 because the super committee deadlocked last month — will be part of the fabric of the 2012 campaign in Virginia. How much of an effect the enacted-but-not-yet-enforced cuts will have on voter behavior is less certain. Even less clear is whether Obama (who says he’d veto any effort to halt the cuts) or Congressional Republicans will do a better job pegging the other side as the culpable party.
Forbes argues that since Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have labeled the sequester as disastrous for national security, the president’s position will make him deeply vulnerable to losing Virginia. Moran, in rebuttal, notes that both Panetta and the president implored the super committee to compromise on a deal so the sequester could be averted.
“I don’t think it is an issue of a great deal of political consequence,” Moran said of the effect of the looming trigger on the Virginia electoral dynamic. But for the president, he conceded, “It could be awkward.”
Dick Cranwell, the state Democratic chairman, also downplayed the potential ill effects of the budget cuts on Obama’s fortunes in the state. “Virginia is one of the largest benefactors of expenditures of federal funds,” he said. “I don’t foresee that changing.”
Nonetheless, Virginia Republicans likely will raise a host of concerns related to parochial defense issues that could turn out voters in large numbers. While Obama has been president, the Pentagon has closed down the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, proposed moving one of the state’s five aircraft carriers to Florida and made plans to shift four Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ships, most likely from Virginia, to the Rota naval base in Spain. (On the other side of the ledger, Obama used his executive authority this fall to designate the recently shuttered Fort Monroe at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay as a national monument, which local officials estimate will help create nearly 3,000 jobs.)
The Virginia delegation was able to mitigate the losses resulting from the command’s closure by keeping about half of the jobs in the state. The delegation, Republicans and Democrats alike, were incensed last year with what they viewed as a lack of consultation from the previous defense secretary, Robert Gates.
But few issues have stirred passions as deeply as the Navy’s plans to shift a carrier from Norfolk to Mayport, Fla. — near Jacksonville — by 2019 as part of an effort to make the fleet more geographically dispersed so as to better withstand a single natural or man-made disaster that might threaten multiple ships. The Navy has now put the brakes on those plans — it says because of budget constraints, since the move could cost $1 billion — but maintains that the rationale for the shift remains valid.
Forbes says the feint toward Florida was more about politics than ship safety and that the carrier move was considered as a way to give the president an opening to claim that he’d brought a few thousand jobs to the biggest prize among the swing states. Backing away from the plan, Forbes maintains, was a sign that the president concluded that taking the jobs out of Virginia would do more harm to his re-election prospects than moving them to Florida.
Competing on National Security
If, as most state politicians note, Virginians pay extraordinarily close attention to national security writ large, then the killing of Osama bin Laden may have significantly boosted Obama’s commander-in-chief bona fides. And that stature may have been further aided by the successful overthrow of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Also, the president’s plans to draw down forces from Iraq by the end of the year and to pull troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 are popular across the nation, according to polls.
“I think he has done a good job of showing himself as supportive of the military and veterans and a good, responsible commander in chief,” Moran said. “Right now, if the race is going to be run on defense issues, he has shored up the issue that Democrats are soft on defense.”
Indeed, Republicans, who criticized Obama in 2008 for saying that he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan to kill bin Laden, now universally laud the decision to do so.
But Democrats and Republicans are of many minds regarding Libya. Forbes, for example, warned that the outcome there is far from clear. He warned that al-Qaida or other Islamist extremists could come to power.
Rep. Scott Rigell, a freshman Republican from Virginia Beach, opposed the military action and introduced legislation with Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio that would have blocked the engagement based on Rigell’s belief that the U.S. intervention in Libya did not meet the standards outlined in the War Powers Act.
Without a clear position, lawmakers say it would be difficult to cast the action in any meaningful way against the president. Some Democrats see that as a clear win for Obama.
“This president has accomplished foreign policy successes that far outpaces anything we have seen out of a Republican president,” Cranwell said. “He doesn’t have to take a back seat on national security to anyone.”