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March 28, 2003


Winner-Take-All Politics Feeds Militarization

By Steven Hill

Throughout the many months leading up to war, most Americans remained unconvinced that war was the right course, particularly without a United Nations endorsement. Yet Congress seemingly did not reflect the nation's mood. There were few voices of congressional opposition, even among Democratic Party leaders, despite polls showing that Democratic voters were opposed to war by nearly 2 to 1. The reasons for this are linked to the most fundamental aspects of our winner-take-all elections. Under the sway of pollsters, consultants, and strategists, Democratic leaders typically bend over backwards not to appear weak on defense. They have made the calculation that the voters who always vote for them will continue to do so, no matter what their stands on Iraq or Middle East policy, because those voters are not about to vote for Republicans. So these liberal and progressive voters mostly can be ignored.

Instead, Democrats target their positions in such a way as to attract more conservative swing voters and independents, those undecided voters that determine winners in close races. Polls show this group has been evenly split over the question of war.

This is a calculated gambit by the Democratic Party leadership. Some of the Democratic House members would like to be more outspoken against the war, but they don't dare buck their leadership. And without a third party in the Congress like a Green Party that is unequivocally against the war, most debate and dialogue came to a standstill long ago.

Consequently, neither Congress nor the president was pressured to reveal how much the Iraqi invasion would cost, even though common sense said it would be fed by cutting other needed programs, including the chances for national health care, prescription drug benefits, and even adequate funding for homeland security.

But this is nothing new. Winner-take-all calculations always have produced bloated military budgets full of pork barrel waste and bipartisan brinkmanship. The story of the October 1999 military appropriations illustrates some of the worst dynamics resulting from our winner-take-all system.

In the spring of 1998, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the military budget would remain steady at about $270 billion per year through 2002, as called for in the 1997 balanced budget agreement. But then came the impeachment attack in the summer. By the fall of 1998, key Republican hawks in Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that a president facing impeachment charges was ripe to be shaken down for more military spending. They presented Clinton with their demands, and to save his presidency Clinton took steps to placate this powerful military constituency.

Clinton pledged a $1.1 billion increase for "military readiness," but in the inevitable horse trading needed to close the deal, Congress transformed the increase into a $9 billion grab bag of pet pork projects. GOP Sen. John McCain described it as "the worst pork in recent memory." The pork included billions more for Star Wars, F-15 fighters, helicopters, and more awarded to the home areas of Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Successive rounds of one-upmanship continued into 1999, pushing the price tag beyond what the Pentagon even had requested.

Careful analysis reveals how winner-take-all incentives drove this policy debacle. First came the impeachment attack -- driven by Republicans in the House selected by their leadership because they represented heavily partisan districts where reelection was assured. Second, the partisan impeachment attack created an opening for the military and congressional hawks to shake down a weakened president. Once the pigskin was put into play, successive rounds of bipartisan brinkmanship upped the ante -- and the price tag -- creating a pork barrel feeding frenzy.

Third, just like now with the Iraqi war, Clinton and the Democrats believed that, as the 2000 election year approached, their pro-military positioning helped them with the more conservative swing voters and insulated them from the charge of being "soft on defense."

The real losers were the American taxpayer and those desiring a peacetime economy. The military budget passed in October 1999 was the largest increase since the Reagan era, even though it already was more than twice that of the combined military budgets of every conceivable adversary.

Even before September 11, our winner-take-all system offered powerful incentives for pork barrel gluttony, political positioning, courting of swing voters, and partisan pit bull attacks that have ensured that the militarization of the federal budget has rolled along as bipartisan policy.


Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com).