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Space Force Proposal Comes With Little Political Risk for Trump

It ‘will look like a quaint idea by 2020,’ one analyst says

Vice President Mike Pence warned China to avoid meddling in "America's democracy" in a speech Thursday that likely will further chill relations with the Asian power. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Vice President Mike Pence warned China to avoid meddling in "America's democracy" in a speech Thursday that likely will further chill relations with the Asian power. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Whether the Space Force becomes a reality or not, the Trump re-election campaign will likely face few consequences in 2020 for shooting for the stars.

Speaking at the Pentagon last week, Vice President Mike Pence laid out an ambitious agenda for standing up a new branch of the military by 2020. Establishing a new agency — much less a new military department to stand beside those of the Army, Navy and Air Force — is a complicated, time-consuming affair, filled with bureaucratic headaches.

So what happens if the Trump administration misses its mark, either by blowing its election-year deadline or by failing to convince a skeptical Congress that a new department is needed to protect American interests in space?

The answer, at least as far as voters are concerned, appears to be: not much.

“I don’t think there is too much risk in overpromising the Space Force in an election year,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a recent email. “The bounce is from all the fanfare of announcing; not from bureaucracy doing its thing. And enough will be happening / moving forward for the president to continue taking full credit for his bold idea regardless of where it actually is in the process.”

Watch: Pence Outlines Need for U.S. Space Force, Says Space No Longer Peaceful

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Additionally, voters don’t typically vote against defense proposals, Eaglen said. It either isn’t a top issue or is a baked-in expectation.

Stan Collender, a former staffer for both the House and Senate Budget committees and longtime budget analyst, described the proposal as a public relations stunt, and gave it a 5 percent to 10 percent chance of becoming a reality.

Although the Pentagon saw a $165 billion windfall for fiscal 2018 and 2019 under the most recent budget deal, that money is on the verge of being fully appropriated. Collender wonders whether the funds for Space Force would come from raiding another Pentagon account, or perhaps repurposing some of NASA’s budget. And lobbyists are already lined up to fight those options, he said.

“I don’t think [the administration has] thought this through in terms of the process. I don’t think they care,” he said. “This is the kind of thing you propose but you don’t necessarily want to see happen.”

He pointed to the way the administration rolled out the plan as evidence that the White House hasn’t staked much of its political capital on the Space Force proposal. The vice president made a vague, short-on-details announcement without any members of Congress present and during the August recess, he said.

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From those optics, Collender concluded that Trump wouldn’t be willing to, say, shut down the government if Congress doesn’t fund Space Force. But voters won’t hold it against Trump, because while Space Force may be currently lighting up the Twitterverse, the public will have moved on from the idea by the next presidential election.

“Two years is a long time by American political standards,” Collender said. “The Space Force will look like a quaint idea by 2020, I suspect.”

The Trump campaign immediately jumped on the Space Force announcement to raise money for 2020. But Pablo Carrillo, a former minority general counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee who also served as chief of staff for Republican Sen. John McCain, said he didn’t see the Space Force announcement as an effort to appeal to voters.

“I don’t know that it does [play to Trump’s base] other than holding himself out as aggressive on defense and national security,” he said.

For defense programs, the political benefits generally derive from the economic benefits to specific districts and states. The military’s pressing needs in space will likely involve a broad use of commercial technology, which would be spread out across the country, lessening the political impact for specific districts, Carrillo said.

“Until and unless we have a better sense of how this is going to be structured, and under what period of time, I don’t think we know” the political ramifications of the Space Force announcement, he added.

The Pentagon is already working on its fiscal 2020 budget, which is scheduled to be submitted to Congress in February. The budget request will provide more insight into how the administration wants to proceed with Space Force, and whether those plans could resonate with voters in 2020, he said.

In the meantime, given the amount of work it takes to authorize and appropriate funds for such a big undertaking, Congress “will have ample opportunity to assert themselves into this as it is pulled together,” Carrillo said.

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