During an interview in March, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell put a hypothetical question to Joe Biden: assuming Medicare for All legislation passed through both the House and the Senate, would Biden, as president, veto it? Biden’s answer somehow went even further than the usual liberal triangulation around questions of health care policy:
I would veto anything that delays providing the security and the certainty of health care being available now. If they got that through and by some miracle there was an epiphany that occurred and some miracle occurred that said “okay, it’s passed,” then you gotta look at the cost. I want to know, how did they find $35 trillion? What is that doing? Is it gonna significantly raise taxes on the middle class, which it will? What’s gonna happen?
Centrist Democrats have typically cloaked their opposition to single-payer health care in the language of pragmatism and the inherently tricky nature of getting major legislation through Congress. But, thanks to the nature of O’Donnell’s question, the former vice president was led to signal he’d veto Medicare for All regardless, on account of its supposedly prohibitive cost.
This week, Biden struck an altogether different tone in a telephone interview with the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. “I don’t think [budget cuts] are inevitable, but we need priorities in the budget,” he told the paper, adding that the Department of Defense needs to innovate and improve its capacities vis-à-vis cyber warfare capabilities and the use of unmanned aircraft. “We have to focus more on unmanned capacity, cyber and IT, in a very modern world that is changing rapidly,” Biden said, concluding: “I’ve met with a number of my advisors and some have suggested in certain areas the budget is going to have to be increased.”
As the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein and others have pointed out, the US military budget is already set to increase by some 2 trillion dollars over the next decade thanks to the current administration. Though it did fall gradually between 2010 and 2015, military spending has been steadily rising since 2016 — from $586 billion in 2015 to some $716 billion by 2019. That same year, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the United States will spend more than $7 trillion on its military over the next decade.
The obvious contradiction between Biden’s two postures — the language of fiscal restraint as applied to health care on the one hand and the assurance he’s more willing to put even more money into an already bloated military apparatus on the other — is emblematic of an eternal truth in American politics, shared by the leaders of both parties: the military can simply never be too big.
While the rhetoric of belt-tightening and deficit hawkishness has been hegemonic for decades in virtually every other part of American life, what is laughably called “defense spending” has continued to balloon despite US military capacity easily outpacing that of the next ten largest military budgets combined.
An important lesson in all this is that what mainstream political discourse considers too expensive is very much in the eye of the beholder. The United States actually can afford Medicare for All, just as it can afford a Green New Deal, tuition free postsecondary education, and plenty else that’s desperately needed. America’s bottomless military spending is ultimately a political choice, and a bad one at that — the product of a bipartisan consensus that continues to see the modernization of cruise missiles and cluster bombs as its superlative priority even while millions sit with life-crippling medical bills and untreated illnesses.
One day, America’s political culture may discover enough basic sanity for different priorities to prevail. But it won’t happen under President Joe Biden.