The unfortunate truth is that when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debate Monday night on foreign policy, they will seek to outgun each other.
Even as many of the most conservative Republicans have joined liberal Democrats in acknowledging that out-of-control Pentagon spending is a deficit issue, the presidential nominees of the two major parties remain exceptionally cautious about speaking the blunt truth that spending on unnecessary wars and unworkable weaponry costs the country financially, structurally and morally.
Obama is a good deal better on the issue than the increasingly bombastic Romney, who with his running mate, Paul Ryan, is campaigning for a return to neocon military adventurism. But Obama does not want to be painted as “soft” on defense. For forty years now, Democrats have sought to avoid the label that was attached to George McGovern, the World War II hero who recognized the folly of squandering America’s human, moral and fiscal prospects on war-making in Vietnam.
It is true that McGovern lost his 1972 presidential race. But he did not lose because he was wrong. He lost because of the wrong politics of a moment when his own party was divided and his opposition was ruthless.
The vision McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, articulated as his party’s nominee for the presidency, and as one of its ablest and most honorable senators, is as correct as ever. And it is a good deal more politically viable, as even conservatives are talking about the need to make deep cuts in Pentagon spending and the attendant policing of the world; last year, in the midst of the wrangling over deficits and debts, conservative Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, proposed a $1 trillion reduction in military spending over the next ten years.
That echoes George McGovern’s vision.
Which is appropriate, as George McGovern’s vision makes even more sense now than it did in 1972.
When McGovern ran for president in 1972, his slogan was “Come Home, America.”
The South Dakota senator’s message was a necessary and appropriate one for that moment, when the United States was mired in what seemed to be a war without end in Southeast Asia—a war that emptied the US treasury into the coffers of a military-industrial complex that demanded resources that could have been spent on job creation, education and healthcare.
And it still resonates:
Together we will call America home to the ideals that nourished us from the beginning,” McGovern told the convention that nominated him almost four decades ago.
From secrecy and deception in high places: come home, America.
From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation: come home, America.
From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick: come home, America.
Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.
The wisdom and hope that was inherent in McGovern’s call that year was not sufficient to defeat Richard Nixon. In a matter of months, however, polls would reveal that Americans regretted their decision, as they came to recognize the extent of Nixon’s corruption.
Forty years on, McGovern’s vision that America might come home to the ideals that had nourished it from the beginning is less a matter of hope than necessity.
The United States can no longer afford the madness of the defense and security spending that, according to the National Priorities Project, have cost this country $7.6 trillion since September 11, 2001.
Our priorities are out of sync with our challenges and our needs. And those priorities need to change.
America would not be defenseless with smaller Pentagon budgets. Conservatives like Coburn recognize that. Even with deep spending cuts, this country will maintain the most sophisticated and effective military in the world.
Downsizing the Pentagon would not be an abandonment of America ideals. It would be a return to the founding promise of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, all of who warned against entangling alliances and spoke of the threat that military adventurism posed to domestic tranquility.
That is the promise the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed when he called Americans to “love peace and sacrifice for it.” It is the promise George McGovern refreshed when he uttered the wise words “Come Home, America!”
For more on the U.S.'s out-of-control military spending, check out "America's Warfare Welfare State."