In a recent post, Todd Gitlin rightly calls out “the huge missing argument in Washington” against 54% of our discretionary spending going to the military budget — and that doesn’t even include the funding for 2 wars and permanent earmarks like the $13 billion per year missile defense program.

This is a subject I’ve blogged about over at for a long time — probably a good 25 posts over the past 2 years, including a few recently (here, here, and here).

Gitlin approvingly cites an interesting argument on Huffington Post by Lorelei Kelly in which Kelly argues against progressives making a case for spending on butter over guns:

“That argument doesn’t work. It never has…. A much more effective strategy for the Left will be to make tradeoffs within the defense budget this year and not to try to shift money around between domestic and defense spending.”

While there is indeed a case to be made for working to find tradeoffs within the defense budget, there’s also another kind of toughness that shouldn’t be derided and marginalized as coming from a “Lefty Chorus…[that] looks backward for inspiration,” as Kelly writes.

Instead of simply asserting that butter over guns doesn’t work, or marginalizing that argument, Gitlin and Kelly should consider that perhaps it hasn’t yet worked because no President has moved to make the case to the American people. There is plenty of support from the grassroots, and there are allies in Congress, who would back a wiser use of limited resources. Until now, however, too many leading Democrats have feared the “soft on national security” label and a well-heeled defense industry so they have steered clear.

But just as abolishing nuclear weapons is now a mainstream proposal so is the butter over guns argument. Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, former senior vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, and former staff member of the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Government Operations, writes in a recent Boston Globe op-ed:”[Obama] can cut obsolete programs and transfer tens of billions of dollars per year to pressing conventional military and domestic programs.”

Cirincione said he frequently makes the butter over guns argument and in a recent email to me wrote:

“The defense budget is not exempt from the line-by-line review President-Elect Obama pledges to conduct. There is enormous waste, fraud, and abuse in the defense spending that cannot be cloaked by the cynical use of the American flag. Most of the $100 billion the Department of Defense spent on reconstruction projects in Iraq was wasted, we now know. The Government Accountability Office finds that Pentagon bookkeeping is so bad that we cannot even account for tens of billions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on weapons programs. There is no weakness in cutting wasteful defense contracts. The weakness is not doing so.”

Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan, has also written of the popular support and wisdom of reallocating resources from defense to domestic needs:

“By advocating the re-allocation of defense dollars, particularly during war, citizens are saying that American security requires much more than a rapidly increasing Pentagon budget. And they are right…. It’s clear that Americans are ready to reduce some Pentagon spending in order to make progress in other areas, like the deficit and energy programs…. With proper backbone, our country’s political leaders could cut tens of billions in Pentagon waste, freeing real money for truly important uses, and the people will support them.”

In fact, Korb phoned me yesterday and spoke of how military spending has the lowest multiplier effect of any form of government spending — as compared to education, for example, which most states are currently cutting due to budget deficits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

As we push for a smart security strategy in the 21st century, and we find tens of billions of dollars that should be cut from the defense budget, progressives shouldn’t be shy or apologetic in making the butter over guns argument. We will find many allies — guys like Korb and Cirincione aren’t exactly your traditional lefties. In fact, these are the very times — when an economic crisis is having a real impact on people’s every day lives — when a chorus pushing this argument is needed.