President Bush can hardly be surprised that Democrats have reacted to his sweeping nuclear disarmament initiatives by calling for more of the same. That is in keeping with the party's dovish stance since the Vietnam war, despite opinion polls indicating that Americans are more inclined to entrust the national security to Republicans.
Democrats remain viscerally committed to a national policy more focused on domestic needs -- not a bad issue when the country is suffering a long, nagging recession. Nonetheless, there is plenty of time for partisan battle on how the government should apportion its resources. The issue urgently before Congress is the impact of the president's decision to eliminate tactical nuclear weaponry and end round-the-clock strategic air strike capability on his $291 billion defense appropriation request now in conference committee.
Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., is perturbed because his Armed Services Committee tried to offset House attempts to kill the B-2 bomber and the paired-down Strategic Defense Initiative by clinging to some weapons programs (especially the rail-based MX missile and the short-range air attack missile) that Mr. Bush scrapped in his surprise nuclear policy announcement. "So right now," the senator said, "the Senate conferees are not going to have the leverage we did, being absolutely frank."
Nor, we would add, is the White House going to find it any easier to protect the 1990 budget agreement, which was designed to protect the Pentagon budget from raids for domestic spending. Since the president himself has said the Soviet threat is much diminished and important nuclear systems are no longer necessary, his defense aides are going to have a hard time resisting demands for dramatic reductions in military spending. White House insistence that the short-term effects of the cuts will actually cost more money is a non-starter.
Few tears will be shed for the ill-conceived plan to plow more billions into the dubious MX missile operation by trying to make it mobile. Mr. Nunn, shorn of this leverage, may have to chose between trying to save the B-2 or his very own version of the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars." If this is the choice, we trust the decision will be to let the B-2 fade into the wild blue yonder and opt for limited ground-based missile defenses to deal with accidental launches or attacks from terrorist groups or Third World dictators of the Saddam Hussein variety. Moscow may yet agree.
What Congress and the administration must decide, if politics can be put aside for a moment, is how to restructure the U.S. military for the kind of world that is emerging after the failure of the Soviet coup in August. Mr. Bush has made a stab at it. Liberal Democrats have made a stab at him. In the end, the country has to hope that defense Democrats such as Senator Nunn and House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin will use their influence, their expertise and their acumen to get a sensible military budget through Congress.