Wednesday, September 19, 2012

the last book I ever read (Rachel Maddow's Drift, excerpt six)

from Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow:

The new president was ready to put our money where his mouth was; he was anxious to expend enormous pots of the national resources to improve our war-making capabilities. And it was an easy sell at first. He'd run on cutting taxes, gutting welfare programs, and spending big on the military. By the time his first budget came up for a vote, Ronald Reagan was also riding a wave of public popularity, largely on the strength of having survived a near-fatal assassination attempt with remarkable grace, at least according to information released by the White House public relations officers. His personal approval rating in the country was more than 70 percent. So Congress--its members could read a poll--overwhelmingly passed Reagan's initial defense appropriation request, which clocked in at a nearly 20 percent increase. In something as huge as the Pentagon budget, a 5 percent increase would have been enough to rattle desks all over Washington; 10 percent was almost unimaginable; getting up toward 20 percent was fantasy talk. That kind of enormous one-year jump was unprecedented--at least it was without our troops actively fighting on a battlefield somewhere. And that play-money request from Reagan came with a promise of more: the administration's announced strategy was to double the defense budget in five years.

By the time that first massive defense appropriation passed, coupled with the largest tax cuts in American history, Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, was already trying to flag to the president a new threat. The projected annual budget deficit had ballooned to $62 billion, Stockman advised, and--at current taxing and spending levels--was sure to hit $112 billion within five years. The yearly deficit, which had generally hovered around 2 percent of GDP in the postwar years, would jump to unprecedented peacetime levels, as much as 4 or 5 percent. When Stockman suggested that the country's financial situation would benefit from a small reduction to the planned increase of the annual defense budget in the coming years, Reagan would have none of it. "When I was asked during the campaign about what I would do if it came down to a choice between defense and deficits," he explained to Stockman, "I always said national security had to come first, and the people applauded every time."

Reagan had plenty of politically astute advisers on his team who knew that they could not count on the president's personal popularity for the long haul. And they knew they could not count on Americans to forever turn a blind eye to exploding budget deficits. Key to managing public expectations and acceptance of this massive defense spending spree was to manage the public's perception of the need for it.

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