Tea Party must tackle defense issues

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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The rallying cry of the Tea Party Movement has been fiscal responsibility and limited government.  It appeals across a broad spectrum of the electorate, but falls far short of addressing core issues of governance.

One of those core issues is national defense.

Without question many drawn to the Tea Parties would be happy to slash defense spending, close bases overseas and withdraw to Fortress America.

But a strong counter current runs through the movement as well.  Sarah Palin, for example, is feted as a huge rock star at Tea Party events, and she certainly comes across as a embracing the Ronald Reagan credo of “Peace through Strength.”

The former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate is certainly not alone in this.   Rising rapidly in the Tea Party galaxy of stars is Michele Bachmann, the firebrand Congresswomen from Minnesota.  This April, she headlined with Palin at a massive Tea Party rally in the Minnesota Convention Center.  Bachmann brought down the house.

Now she’s working to bring the Tea Party Movement into the House.  Last week, Bachman filed papers to create a “tea party” caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. At a rally on the Hill she declared, “This caucus will espouse the timeless principles of our founding, principles that all Members of Congress have sworn to uphold.”

Bachmann could well be a natural leader for Tea Partiers. She is considered a maverick by many in the political establishment.  Better yet, she is vilified by the Left.  Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne recently mused that a caucus led by Minnesotan will make Democrats happy and Republicans nervous.

It’s a prediction many on the Right relish.  Nowadays it seems that the more the Left sneers at the Tea Parties and their champions, the more popular they become.  Moreover, a little nervousness amongst Republicans might prove a useful tonic for the GOP.  Lately, some Republican graybeards seem to take their tough-on-defense cred for granted. (Example:  Sen. Lugar’s dubious pronouncement that the New START arms control agreement will enhance national security.)

Bachmann seems well-positioned to help the Tea Party movement think through the national security challenges that face this nation.  Her credentials as a fiscal conservative are impeccable, giving her the ear of all in the movement.  But she has also established herself as a staunch conservative on national security issues, too. In 2009, National Journal rated her voting record on foreign policy and defense issues as more conservative than 75 percent of her colleagues.

Bachman, then, it situated to challenge the Tea Party to think beyond deficits, budgets and enumerated powers, and to spark a thoughtful discussion about how the federal government will to meet its fundamental obligation of “providing for the common defense.”

When Ronald Reagan took the Oval Office, the nation faced the twin evils of economic malaise and a worn-out military. He rebuilt both.

The situation today is alarmingly similar to what Reagan inherited.  To lead this nation forward, Bachmann, Palin and the Tea Parties must discuss and decide if the common defense is best provided by Reagan’s “peace through strength” formula or if there is another, equally effective approach to guarantee national security.

For those who wish to lead, defense cannot be ignored or even relegated to a second-tier status.  Yes, excessive federal spending and a metastasizing deficit are critical issues, but national security is and will always be an existential issue.

Today, numerous national security issues demand debate.  The Left is making a concerted effort to gut missile defense, ram through ratification of the New START, slash military procurement and modernization programs, and let an arbitrary timeline—rather than the situation on the ground—dictate withdrawal from Afghanistan.  The Tea Party movement needs to find its voice on these issues, and make it heard.

James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.