BARBOUR FACES BLOWBACK OVER DEFENSE BUDGET…. It may not be possible to have a dust-up among Republican presidential candidates when there aren’t any actual Republican presidential candidates. But if it is possible, we’re apparently seeing the first one of the 2012 cycle.

Campaigning in Iowa this week, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) argued that defense cuts make sense. “Anybody who says you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon,” Barbour said. “We can save money on defense and if we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we’ll have no credibility on anything else.”

Wednesday, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) blasted the remarks. Yesterday, Bill Kristol registered his disapproval, too.

Barbour’s only substantive argument seemed to be this: “Anybody who says you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon.” This is a) childish, b) slightly offensive, and c) raises the question of how much time Barbour has spent at the Pentagon — apart from time spent lobbying for defense contractors or foreign governments.


Kristol added that Barbour’s remarks constituted “irresponsible pandering.” What’s more, the fact that the Mississippi governor is skeptical of the war in Afghanistan makes him “an advocate of U.S. retreat.”

This, by the way, is the language Kristol, a leading GOP voice, is using in March 2011 — before any of the candidates have even announced. I wonder what the criticism will look like if Barbour is still advocating defense cuts in, say, December.

Of course, that’s part of the point of the pushback. Barbour broached the subject this week, not in a formal speech, but in a more casual setting. By going after him aggressively, the Republican establishment is presumably letting Barbour know: “Don’t do that again.”

As for the rest of the unannounced field, the Wall Street Journal notes that Pawlenty, Romney, Palin, and Gingrich oppose cuts to the massive Pentagon budget, while Barbour, Daniels, and Ron Paul support cuts.

There are worse things to debate in a presidential primary.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.