No New Priorities in First Presidential Debate

By Jen Soriano
Oct 4, 2012

How do we Move Beyond Military Business as Usual?

The first presidential debate in Denver last night just confirmed what we already know: both Romney and Obama love the US military industrial complex. Under Obama, the military budget has increased by 8 billion dollars between 2008 and 2013. Under Romney, estimates show he’d be willing to increase the US military budget by 2 trillion dollars.  Obama called Romney out on this, while neglecting to mention that the debt ceiling deal calls for an overall increase in the defense budget by 2022, even with the slated $487 billion in reductions.

The only difference between their military budget positions boils down to this simple statement from Winslow T. Wheeler, an analyst at the liberal Center for Defense Information: “Obama will spend a lot; Romney will spend a lot more.”

Obviously, unlike Romney’s love of Big Bird - which he declared after stating he would stop subsidies to PBS - both candidates’ love for the US military industrial complex isn’t a tough love that comes with disciplined cutbacks, much less any common-sense transformation in military policy.

Another thing we already know: Presidential debates aren’t so much freewheeling forums to discover where candidates stand on the many pressing issues of the day, as they are scripted political theater to win over target audiences.

Hence the depressingly narrow scope of “debate” topics; instead of what one might hope would be covered under the big tent of “domestic affairs” -- including housing and immigration, incarceration and gun control, reproductive rights and environmental protection, I could go on and on here -- the debate essentially boiled down to three topics: the merits and evils of Obamacare, a Romney-run ideological jabfest on taxes and the role of government, and an austerity-themed talk about what would get cut from the federal budget to boost the economy and create jobs.

In this context, Romney and Obama’s fleeting statements on the military can be seen less as real policy differences, and more as signals to the bases they are trying to move and the undecided voters they are trying to win.

In Romney’s case his statements were strongly values-based, for example: “We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means a military second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America's military.” No facts, no figures. Just a strong ideological statement meant for defense contractors, veterans, men and women in uniform, and all those employed by the US military industrial complex.

In Obama’s case his statements were strongly numbers-based, arguing that Romney’s 2 trillion increase in military spending would end up being paid by middle-class Americans. His audience, apparently: cerebral middle-class Americans willing to follow all his facts and figures, including undecided fiscal conservatives.

Obama did also stake a claim on his accomplishments as commander in chief by reminding audiences that he “ended the war in Iraq,” that he’s going to “wind down the war in Afghanistan,” and that he “went after AlQaida and Bin Laden”. This is no doubt a preview of what he will be driving home during the remaining two debates, which will have more of a foreign policy focus. His audiences for these accomplishments: military families who want troops to come home, liberal peaceniks, people from across the political spectrum who believe that these represent milestones in making our nation more secure.

So if those were Romney and Obama’s audiences, where does that leave the rest of us: many veterans and military families; relatives of targeted communities in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America; migrants displaced by war; young military recruits and visionary peace activists; all those who know we urgently need to transform the US military industrial complex and stop the expansion of the US military empire?

Third party candidates Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party espouse more of a real alternative to Romney and Obama’s militarist stance. In a parallel debate moderated by Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, Jill Stein talked about the need to downsize the military, cut back spending to 2000 levels, and respect immigrant rights as human rights - a reference to her opposition against the domestic militarization program known as “secure communities.” While Rocky Anderson did not mention the military in this parallel debate, his platform calls for an end to illegal wars of aggression, the closing of all non-critical overseas military bases, and a 50% reduction in the Pentagon budget.

We could debate all we want about the impact of third party candidates and the question of “spoilers”.  All I know is that the presidential debates would take on a whole different meaning if these perspectives got equal airtime. Given that militarism and foreign policy are arguably the areas in which third party candidates’ positions differ the most from the two-party establishment’s, it could only help anti-war efforts to pressure the Committee on Presidential Debates to open the gates to third party candidates. At the very least it would widen the scope of the debate beyond militarism as usual, and that’s a critical step towards building the wider consciousness necessary to growing the anti-war movement.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jen Soriano is a Pinay writer, communications strategist, and musician based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  She is communications coordinator for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, an alliance of mass-based organizations connecting local struggles in the U.S. with international movements for human rights, economic justice, and global well-being.  She is also a co-founder and board chair of the Center for Media Justice.

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