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If Norton Wants to Talk Military Strategy, Ask Her About Defense Cuts

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Even with U.S. wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was surprised U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton dropped the old Democrats-are-weak-on-defense bomb into the Colorado Senate campaign, via an ad that's angered some left-leaning veterans.

But now that Norton is talking about the military, reporters should broaden the debate a bit, and ask her and the other Senate candidates about defense spending generally.

Trying and succeeding to look more and more like a tea party candidate, Norton likes to list the ways the government should save money. Stop the bailouts. No more earmarks. Abolish the Department of Education.

If you review local news coverage across the country where tea party candidates are running strong, you see that reporters are dutifully noting their budget-cutting soundbites, which sound a lot like Norton's.

But reporters aren't asking tea partiers about a more effective way to curb federal spending that's not on their cost-cutting wish-list: the wasteful programs embedded in the world's largest bureaucracy, the Pentagon.

We're spending about $750 billion on the military this year. That accounts for about 40 percent of the federal budget, if you include mandatory outlays like interest on the debt and Social Security. It's over half of the so-called discretionary budget, the amount Congress divides up and spends annually.

As budget analysts of all political persuasions will tell you, the Pentagon budget replete with waste. Over $60 billion could be easily trimmed, according to the Unified Security Budget taskforce headed by Institute for Policy Studies research fellow Miriam Pemberton and Lawrence Korb, who served as President Ronald Reagan's assistant secretary of defense. The savings, they say, would come from just cutting fighters, submarines, and other big weapons that don't make sense given the threats faced by the U.S. today. Other military analysts have identified other ways to save even more money.

If the Pentagon isn't red meat for the ferocious tea bag express, what is?

Yet, the issue is off the media radar screen for the most part. A Google News search for "tea party" and "Defense Department" yields about a dozen articles. Searching for "tea party" and "health care" produces more than 2,700.

But one recent article in Politico, titled "Robert Gates May Get Lift from Tea Parties," did tackle the issue. It provides an excellent example of the kind of Pentagon-related questions reporters across the country should ask tea party candidates.

Politico asked numerous tea party activists whether military spending should be on their budget-cut hit list. And all of them said it should be.

The article quotes tea party leader Mike Pence (R-Ind.) saying "If we are going to get our fiscal house in order, everything has to be on the table."

But Pence opposes cutting a redundant engine for the F-35 fighter jet. Rolls Royce, a big fish in Indiana, makes the engine.

So Pence isn't joining forces with the Obama administration to cut this second engine, widely seen as unnecessary, and tea partiers haven't been up in arms about his embrace of Pentagon waste.

Reporters should call Pence on this inconsistency. They should find out if other tea party candidates are willing to join President Barack Obama on this issue. Despite the recession and noise about the deficit, Congress is bitterly fighting even his relatively small defense cuts.

Tea party candidate Chuck DeVore, who lost a bid for the GOP Senate nomination in California, told Politico that defense cuts are "not an issue" that came up in the hundreds of tea party events he attended on the campaign trail in California.

Yet he and others like him, when asked, say they won't shy away from the issue.

Against this backdrop, and now that Norton is talking military issues, it's time for Colorado reporters to Senate candidates about this.

How much would they trim from the Pentagon budget? What weapons systems would they cut? Would they join Democrats and the president to get the job done?

A portion of this article was distributed nationally by the OtherWords syndicate.