Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) speaks during a campaign event at Partnership for… (Sara D. Davis / Associated…)
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- Rep. Paul Ryan went deep into military country Thursday to make the case that President Obama is threatening national security by presiding over huge planned cuts in defense spending -- cuts that Ryan himself helped create as a member of Congress.
Speaking to an audience near Ft. Bragg dominated by military contractors, retired military officers and their families, Ryan insisted that he voted for the budget bill that resulted in the so-called sequester in 2011 despite strong objections over its planned cuts to the military.
The measure, part of the agreement to raise the national debt ceiling, set in motion $1.2 trillion in federal budget cuts -- to be divided roughly equally between defense and domestic programs -- that would go into effect only if the administration and Congress failed to agree on an alternate plan to reduce the federal deficit.
PHOTOS: Paul Ryan's past
Although Ryan, the presumptive Republican vice presidential nominee, voted for the plan, he said he did so without enthusiasm. "When those budget negotiations were going on, it was the president and his party leaders who insisted on this makeup," he said. He said that while he didn't oppose cuts in military spending, he believed the sequestration vote went too far.
"Defense spending is not half of all federal spending, but it's half of the cuts, approximately, in the sequester. We disagreed with that then and we disagree with it now," he said.
Speaking of himself and running mate Mitt Romney, he said, "We believe in the doctrine of peace through strength ... and that is why we are steadfastly opposed to the president's reckless and devastating defense cuts."
Obama has said that he remains confident that an agreement can be reached that would stave off the huge cuts in January, and Democrats have criticized Ryan for attacking the president over a bill that he supported.
“If Congressman Ryan were serious about avoiding the automatic defense cuts he decried in North Carolina today, he’d tell Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans in Congress to work with the President to achieve balanced deficit reduction that includes asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share,” Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner said in a statement Thursday.
Ryan spoke as part of a panel discussion at a military contracting plant, the Partnership for Defense Innovation, along with a group that included two retired four-star generals, two "gold star" women who had lost their husband and son, respectively, in combat, and Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).
Underscoring the political ramifications of the defense cuts, both Ryan and Ellmers spoke about the effect on communities such as Fayetteville, which rely heavily on military spending. "Our own neighbors, our own families will experience this," Ellmers said of the looming cuts, "because it will mean loss of jobs in our communities and devastation in our communities."
Ryan took some questions from the audience, but when Ellmers solicited questions from the substantial press corps gathered for the event, Ryan advisors in the audience signaled that he would not take any media queries.
A woman in the audience asked Ryan about recent, widely publicized remarks by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who criticized veterans who participated in an online documentary, "Dishonorable Disclosures," that criticized Obama for taking credit for the death of Osama bin Laden.
Ryan at first asked if she was referring to Dempsey's testimony before the House Budget Committee on defense cuts. Told that she was referring to the comments about the documentary, he at first said he wasn't familiar with them. "I can't comment on that," he said.
When Ellmers said she knew of the remarks, he seemed to say that he was aware of them, but deferred to Ellmers to answer. "I certainly understand where Gen. Dempsey is coming from," she said. "However, I think this is a very important issue and certainly a 1st Amendment right, and they have every right to speak out if they need to."
Both generals on the panel, retired four-star Gens. Buck Kernan and Dan McNeil, seemed to side with Dempsey, with McNeil saying, "If you speak in such a way that you betray mission profiles, you make life harder for your comrades, and that's not right."
Defense, like foreign affairs, is considered to be one of Obama's strengths heading into the election, with the Bin Laden killing one of the signature achievements of his administration. However, both Romney and Ryan have been trying to seize the advantage by attacking him for the sequester cuts.
As a former governor, Romney has no professional experience in foreign policy or defense. That has not been a barrier to presidential candidates, especially in the post-Cold War era. None of the last three presidents -- Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- came to office with a strong background in defense or foreign affairs.
All of them chose running mates with more hefty portfolios. Joe Biden had been chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Dick Cheney had been defense secretary; and Al Gore was a Vietnam veteran who had served on the Senate Armed Services and House Intelligence committees.
[For the Record, 1:45 p.m. PST Aug. 23: This post has been updated to include the Obama campaign's response to Ryan's remarks.]
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