Golden oldies


Good grief. Have the Republicans and their base conservatives suffered a horrendous week, or what?

At wit's end to explain away the Iowa gay marriage legalization ruling (written by a Republican appointee, for a state supreme court led by a Republican appointee), they predictably fumed about "activist judges" usurping the power of the people and the legislatures - only to get broadsided by the Vermont legislature, which proceeded to legalize gay marriage in that state as well. Meanwhile, President Obama returned home from a gaffe-free international tour (where, among other highlights, he hugged it out with our soldiers in Iraq), and was greeted by a new CBS-New York Times poll which found that 66 percent of Americans approve of his performance - while only 31 percent have a positive view of the GOP (the worst GOP rating since the CBS-Times pollsters began asking that question a quarter of a century ago).

Meanwhile, Norm Coleman, the imperiled Republican in the never-ending Minnesota Senate race, having already lost the statewide hand recount, and having already lost his court trial, learned during the week that he had fallen even farther behind Al Franken in the court-sanctioned vote count - thereby making it even more likely that he'll ultimately waste the party's money in his futile bid to deny the Democrats a 59th Senate seat. Meanwhile, a new CNN-ORC poll reported that 65 percent of Americans support Obama's interventions in the business and financial sectors, and believe that his intervention efforts have either been "about right," or not enough. Meanwhile...but you get the idea.

Given their dire circumstance, it's understandable that Republicans are a tad flummoxed about what to do or say. Nothing seems to be moving the needle their way. They're like a battered car spinning its wheels against a brick wall. The only short-term solution, apparently, is to take refuge in the same rhetorical tropes that sustained them back in the day, when life was good. Since they can't come up with anything new, why not bring back one of the golden oldies?

So they did. All this week, their message was: Obama is weak on defense and soft on our enemies.

The Republicans apparently still think it's 1988 and that they can put Obama and his Republican Defense secretary into the tank with hapless Mike Dukakis. The effort this week bordered on the comical.

It all began with conservative umbrage over North Korea's (inept) missile launch, and the right's suggestion that the launch was designed as a test of Obama's resolve. Newt Gingrich, seeking to woo the party base for 2012, suggested on Fox News that he, as president, would have taken out that missile prior to launch. Another 2012 hopeful, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, told Fox News that "you've got to back up words with action" - intimating, of course, that wimpish Obama is all talk. The reality, of course, is that America has known for a year that this launch was coming; that (as foreign affairs experts point out) the launch was primarily intended to help Kim Jong-il on the domestic front, where rumors of ill health might be eroding his stature.

Meanwhile, there is considerable GOP amnesia about the recent past. Back on May 23, 2003, President Bush declared that "we will not tolerate" a nuclear North Korea - but Bush did so little to engage or confront this charter member of the so-called "axis of evil," that he wound up tolerating a lot. One independent study, sponsored by the Institute for Science and International Security, concluded a few years ago, that between 2002 on 2006 (all on Bush's watch), North Korea produced enough plutonium to make anywhere from four to 13 nuclear bombs. I don't recall any Republican outrage about Bush's track record.

Anyway, by midweek the GOP's use of the Korea launch had fizzled as badly as the missile. But along came the Somali pirates, and the seizing of a ship flying the U.S. flag in the Indian Ocean. Shiver me timbers, this looked like a good one; religious right leader Gary Bauer promptly circulated an email declaring that the pirates are Islamic militants seeking to test Obama's resolve (in Bauer's words, "it's not a leap to conclude" that this is their aim). In reality, Somali experts and American officials have long concluded that the pirates - who have plied those waters for years - are apolitical crooks looking to make money. In reality, the pirates have long been plaguing western ships, despite a multinational police operation supervised by the United Nations. The Bush administration signed off on that U.N. effort. I don't recall any complaints from the Republican right about Bush ceding authority to the U.N.

But the most amusing incident occurred Wednesday during some of the pirate coverage on Fox News. The talking head was Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, and he was arguing that Obama should get tough and respond aggressively to the pirates: "I’d put F-22s and combat air patrol out there...The reason I’d put the F-22s is because they can go 1.6 to mach 2, and they have a very quick reaction time..."

Huh? The F-22 is designed to cruise at high altitudes and shoot down other planes, not to escort ships imperiled by pirates. Why was McInerney making such an argument? Because, in reality (although Fox News didn't say this), McInerney has shilled as a consultant for Northrop Grumman - a major contractor for the F-22. And it just so happens that the F-22, which has been flown on zero missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is currently on the chopping block at Obama's Pentagon.

Which brings us to the week's main event, the Republican attack on Obama's newly-released military budget. Faced with the challenge of painting Obama as a defense wimp, they have simply made stuff up.

Their theme (quoting a number of Republican congressmen) is that Obama is working "to pull the rug out from under our armed services," that he is seeking "drastic defense cuts that will weaken our national security," that his "military budget cuts" suggest "a sense of naivete," that "the one place he wants to cut spending is defense," and that (in the words of Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe) "President Obama is disarming America. Never before has a president so ravaged the military at a time of war...he undercuts those he sends into harm’s way. It is not just unbelievable, it is unconscionable."

One would never know, from those assertions, that Obama's budget actually calls for a hike in military funds of $21 billion; that it includes billions in new money for veterans, particularly those suffering from mental health problems and brain injuries; that it adds $11 billion to expand the Army and Marines; and that, most importantly, it reflects a fundamental shift in war-fighting priorities long signaled by Pentagon chief Robert Gates - who started mapping his plans while working for President Bush.

Gates was delivering speeches on this topic long before the '08 election. He said last September that the U.S. should no longer fund every weapon system regardless of need, because many of these projects "have grown ever more baroque, ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are...reaching a point of diminishing returns." His fundamental aim, as he said earlier this week, is to junk the projects we don't need and focus on those we do need, "to institutionalize and enhance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today, and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead."

For instance, Gates has determined that new F-22s, a Cold War era plane designed to battle the Soviets, are no longer needed, whereas he has upped production, by $2 billion, of the drones that have aided the nation's counterterrorism efforts. There are many such trade-offs, a reflection of the priority shift that Gates foreshadowed during his Bush tenure. I don't recall the Republicans going after Gates at the time.

Today they apparently have little to say beyond recycling their old rhetoric, and it's a good bet that their soft-on-defense line won't move the needle, either. The most stunning statistic, in the aforementioned CBS-Times poll, is that, by a 34-point margin (61 percent to 27 percent), Americans now trust Obama more than the Republicans "to make the right decisions about keeping the nation safe."

The Republicans used to own that category; national security was their brand. It's hard to imagine that lying about Obama's budget will help increase their market share. Their icon, Ronald Reagan, was fond of saying that "facts are stubborn things." Perhaps they should heed him now.