Most of what passes for "conflict" in modern American politics is seriously corny at its best and perfunctory at its worst. Partisan squabbles in Congress are not like a boxing match – the days of Brooks caning Sumner have long passed – but rather like pro wrestling: scripted, full of loud bluster and theatrical gestures, fake, and stupid. Supreme Court nominations are my favorite example. Everyone gets confirmed, but not before the minority party stages a few weeks of hearings to show the party base that, gosh, we tried to stop it.
In other words, despite all the complaints about rancor, partisan clashes, and incivility in Washington it's very rare that we actually see any of these people get angry. They act angry (or offended, or insulted, or whatever) at key moments because they know they are supposed to. "Obama nominated who? Without even consulting Mitch McConnell? Why I never!" We get lots of these, for lack of a better term, hissy fits. But it's so very rare to see these people pull out the knives and attack like a cornered animal. In my view there's only one thing that can reliably send Congress into a real, legitimate, out-for-blood frenzy, and that's any threat, real or perceived, to the Department of Defense budget.
Seriously, I think that partisan conflict is little more than going through the motions for most political issues. Most members who have any legislative experience know exactly what is and is not possible to get passed in any given session. Just the hint of any cuts to – or anything but continued growth of, for that matter – the Pentagon budget tells you everything you need to know about who runs that town. Think the NRA is a powerful lobby? There are dozens members of Congress who will tell Wayne LaPierre to his face to go fuck himself. None but a handful will even mention reduced defense spending…despite the fact that polling shows many Americans believing that we spend too much. You know the statistics and I will not recount them here.
This is why you see the GOP crapping itself to oppose former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel's nomination for Defense Secretary. On the surface it seems ludicrous – "They hate Obama so much, they even complain when he nominates one of them!" – and the rhetoric surrounding it is the usual nonsense; something about how he wants to appease Iran. Yeah. OK. In reality the only problem is that Chuck Hagel, a man who voted for every increase in defense spending he ever saw as a Senator, is perceived to be less than 1000% in favor of an eternally expanding Pentagon budget. Why, he might even support some totally insignificant cuts to bloated, expensive, ridiculous weapon systems and programs!
In the real world, that makes some sense. Yes, 20% of the population is stupid enough to equate money with security ("If we spend less, we're less safe!") but in Washington that idea is goddamn heretical. That is why you see people like McCain and particularly the two Texans, Cruz and Cornyn, attacking Hagel with the kind of pure hatred usually reserved for members of al-Qaeda. The beast must be fed at all costs. It must continue to grow, and no one who has not sworn complete loyalty to it is acceptable.
If there is a They in this country, a single malevolent force that Really Runs Things and manipulates the entirety of the government and the public, it's the defense industry. They own the media (in NBC's case, literally), the think tanks, the Beltway pundit class, the state/local governments, and Congress. Their reach is even deeper and broader than that of Wall Street, if that's conceivable. They live entirely off of the government and Congress has to appropriate money for them every year. Defense spending is a discretionary item. The industry can never afford to take its foot off the lobbying pedal, not even for a second. Eisenhower was right; they own the government to an extent disproportionate even to their considerable role in our economy.
How do they do it? The easiest answer is that they figured out many decades ago – early in the Cold War – how Congress works. Namely, the industry understands and employs the strategy of Universalism better than any other. It's a simple idea: one of the most effective ways to build a winning coalition to pass legislation in Congress is to distribute the benefits as broadly as possible. If you want Congress to vote on a ludicrously expensive fighter jet program, one way to get a ton of Congressmen on board is to build the engines in one district, the wings in another, the electronics in a third, the radar in a fourth…and so on. The defense industry is not bound by any geography, as the oil industry is to some extent. No, they have made goddamn sure that they have economic interests in as many different states and Congressional districts as possible. They're everywhere. And that's why they get what they want all the time. The south is lousy with the footprints of the military-industrial complex, but so is California. So's Virginia. Maryland. New York. Missouri. Washington state. Hawaii. Arizona and New Mexico. Colorado. North Dakota. The Carolinas. Tennessee. Pick any spot on the map and the military bases and defense contractors won't be far away.
That's why the claws are coming out over Hagel. And Hagel isn't even a real threat; he's a 66 year old company-man Republican from Nebraska. But unless one's loyalty to shoveling more and more money into the arms industry is beyond any conceivable doubt, neither they nor the Congressmen they have bought can risk letting you near the levers of power. For decades people have called Social Security the third rail of American politics. Well, Social Security's under the knife while the Pentagon keeps growing. Which one is untouchable?