Sarah Palin is waging a battle inside the Tea Party movement to exempt defense spending from the group's small-government, anti-deficit fervor.
There's growing concern among Republicans -- and especially among the pro-defense neoconservative wing of the party -- that national-security spending, which is under a level of scrutiny and pressure not seen since the end of the Cold War, could fall victim to the anti-establishment, anti-spending agenda of the Tea Party movement. Palin, as the unofficial leader of that movement and its most prominent celebrity, is moving to carve out such funding from any drives to cut overall government expenditures.
There's a sense among GOP insiders that she is not only the perfect figure to make the case, but she's also the only one who can pull it off.
"In the conservative ranks and within the party, she's really quite a crucial piece in this puzzle," said Tom Donnelly, defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "She's got both political and Tea Party/small government bona fides, but she also has a lot of credibility in advocating for military strength."
Although the Tea Party lacks strict organization or the traditional policy discipline found elsewhere on the American right, Palin's presence looms large over the movement. Her endorsements are prized by candidates, and even the most far-right lawmakers oppose her positions at their own risk.
"The Tea Party movement is not something that's set in stone. She can have a bridging effect but she can also have a profound influence on the direction that the Tea Party goes," said Donnelly.
Defense spending could also be a theme of Palin's much-mooted return to the campaign trial in 2012.
"Sarah Palin is uniquely positioned to have an effect and it could also redound in her favor," Donnelly said. "She can lay claim to this issue in ways that give her legitimacy and credibility for her next political move as well."
Palin's drive to lead the charge against defense cuts on the right was on display in a June 27 speech at "Freedom Fest," a conservative gathering in Norfolk, VA, where she sent a clear message to Republicans that deficit reduction can't come at the expense of the military.
"Something has to be done urgently to stop the out of control Obama-Reid-Pelosi spending machine, and no government agency should be immune from budget scrutiny," she said. "We must make sure, however, that we do nothing to undermine the effectiveness of our military. If we lose wars, if we lose the ability to deter adversaries, if we lose the ability to provide security for ourselves and for our allies, we risk losing all that makes America great! That is a price we cannot afford to pay."
Palin also directly took on Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican, challenging his drive to reign in procurement spending and reevaluate the need for certain huge weapons systems and platforms.
"Secretary Gates recently spoke about the future of the U.S. Navy. He said we have to ‘ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers.' He went on to ask, ‘Do we really need ... more strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?'" Palin said. "Well, my answer is pretty simple: Yes, we can and, yes, we do, because we must."
Calls for defense to be considered for cuts are coming from all corners. In April, President Obama told his new debt commission that "everything must be on the table" when it comes to places to find savings. He also raised the issue in his National Security Strategy, released in May, which said, "Rebuilding our economy must include putting ourselves on a fscally sustainable path. As such, implementing our national security strategy will require a disciplined approach to setting priorities and making tradeofs among competing programs and activities."
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma sent a letter to the commission explaining exactly why he thinks defense spending is ripe for cost-cutting. "I appreciate that some of these thoughts are controversial," he wrote, "even to the point that I have some reluctance in suggesting them" -- highlighting the sensitivity of even challenging increased defense spending, something of a third rail in GOP politics. "However, if we are to fulfill our mandate, we must make some difficult choices, not just recommend that others do so," he said.
For Gates and leading Democrats like House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-MO, taking a hard look at the defense budget is necessary to reform a Pentagon that has lost its ability to manage money efficiently now that the Defense Department's coffers have more than doubled since 2001.
Top Democrats in Congress are now beginning to talk about deficits as being detrimental to national security, challenging the conventional wisdom that more defense funding is always better.
"It's time to stop talking about fiscal discipline and national security threats as if they're separate topics: debt is a national security threat, one of the greatest we know of," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said in a speech this week.
Opponents of defense budget cuts see Palin as perfectly positioned to make their case to the Tea Party rank and file. The former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate remains hugely popular among the conservative base, giving her credibility even within the libertarian wing of the GOP represented by Ron and Rand Paul, two Tea Party favorites.
Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary and an influential neoconservative, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in March that although Palin has become identified with the Tea Party, on national security she provides a bridge to the hawkish side of the GOP.
"Her views are much closer to those of her conservative opponents than they are to the isolationists and protectionists on the ‘paleoconservative' right or to the unrealistic ‘realism' of the ‘moderate' Republicans who inhabit the establishment center," he wrote.