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This Is Why Robert Gates Is Yoda

Politico takes a look at the coalescing roles of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Obama administration, a story of two similarly disposed wise (wo)men who have forged a partnership remarkably free of the Foggy Bottom-Pentagon infighting or upstaging that has plagued administrations past. (Well, mostly.) Gates, Politico says, is known at the White House as “Yoda.” Here’s an example of his Jedi mind tricks.

As reported here, the House Armed Services Committee finished marking up the fiscal 2011 Defense authorization last week, and intruded on a lot of administration priorities. Something I didn’t focus on, but Gates certainly did: The committee again authorized funding for a second engine on the Joint Strike Fighter, something the past two administrations have opposed as unnecessary and costly. And they did it right after Gates gave a major speech warning Congress about the “political will” necessary for a restrained, sustainable defense budget. Like not even two weeks afterward. It’s a slap in the face. Politico is right to observe that Gates is more solicitous of Capitol Hill than his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld — a pretty low bar to clear — but the budget fight is the central characteristic of his relationship with legislators at the moment.

So the morning after the markup, Gates comes into a Pentagon press conference and starts to regulate. “We will strongly resist efforts to impose programs and changes on the department that the military does not want, cannot afford, and that takes dollars from programs and endeavors the military services do need,” he said, reminding everyone in the room and on the Hill of his longstanding recommendation that President Obama veto the bill if it funds the second JSF engine and an Air Force transport plane Gates is trying to kill.

But if you’re a legislator, maybe you have a different calculus in mind. You need to get re-elected. Your constituents need jobs. You need to be seen as providing them with jobs. Defense-sector manufacturing and support jobs are good jobs, with high wages and federal benefits. So what if some defense secretary is moaning about wasteful defense spending? Your district isn’t going to care. And besides — isn’t Gates on his way out the door this year, anyway?

Then comes this exchange with a reporter in last week’s press conference. Here’s the transcript:

Q Will you stay here through next year to see that ’012 budget through? Because what you’re proposing can be rope-a-doped if there’s a perception you’re leaving at the end of the year. Rope-a-dope means they could, you know, resist –

SEC. GATES: I know what rope-a-dope means. (Laughter, laughs.) I’ve been in — I started in the government 44 years ago. I know exactly what that means. (Laughter.)

ADM. MULLEN: (Laughs.)

Q A serious question, though.

Do you now anticipate staying here through the end of ’011 to see the ’012 budget through?

SEC. GATES: We’ll see.

Maybe that legislator’s calculus changes now that Gates might stick around to see his priorities enforced. After all, she could be blamed for busting up the gargantuan defense budget, opposing the military and not delivering jobs. It’s an election year.

The Force is strong with this one.

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