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Poll finds partisan split over Space Force

Vice President Pence arrives to speak at an event in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 3, 2018.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

By JEFF CIRILLO | CQ-Roll Call | Published: August 18, 2018

WASHINGTON — Its cool science-fiction title alone practically oozes nostalgia for the starbound adventures of American astronauts, the spirit of Cold War competition and pride for American dominance in space. So why are most Democrats not on board with the Space Force?

Sixty-nine percent of Democrats disapproved of the White House’s effort to establish a sixth branch of the military focused on defending U.S. interests in space, according to a new poll released Wednesday. And only 12 percent supported it. The reaction from Republicans was almost exactly flipped: 68 percent of Republicans supported the proposal, while only 14 percent opposed it.

The dramatic party-line split is remarkable for a previously obscure and largely nonpartisan idea. President Donald Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the Space Force has thrust it into public fame — and driven a deep partisan divide.

"That same partisan divide did not exist before Trump got involved in this issue," said Brian Weeden, an expert on space policy at the Secure World Foundation. "President Trump’s focus on, and support of, the Space Force has definitely raised public awareness of it, but has also politicized it."

The poll, released Wednesday by The Economist/YouGov, surveyed 1,500 American adults online from Aug. 12-14. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Defense policy wonks have debated the idea of a space-based military service for close to two decades.

Last year, a bipartisan pair of congressmen pushed hard for the Space Corps, their own version of a military space force. The provision was controversial, but not along partisan lines. Supporters in both parties said the proposal served an urgent need to defend the country’s interests in space, while other lawmakers and top Pentagon officials said space defense was better served without an expensive new bureaucracy.

Then in June, Trump plucked the idea out of obscure policy circles and launched it into the realm of partisan politics. He has made the Space Force one of his signature grandiose campaign promises, using it to raise campaign funds and gin up supporters at rallies.

By attaching his personal brand, Trump has made the Space Force idea more well-known and, at the same time, more polarized, defense experts say. Serious debate about the issue could soon become nearly impossible, said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It’s taking something that is a legitimate security issue - where there’s not an easy solution, it needs to be debated and discussed on its merits - and it turns it into another partisan issue," Harrison said.

Trump has ordered the Pentagon to get to work immediately to establish the Space Force, and Vice President Mike Pence promised it by 2020. Plenty stands in the way of its launch. Only Congress can make a new service branch, not the president on his own. Legislation would be necessary to allocate funding to the new department and give it the authority to take over space-related business from the Air Force, for example.

The president’s decree should quiet any further objections from the Pentagon. But many of the lawmakers who opposed the Space Corps are rebelling against the Space Force. In all, only 36 percent of respondents in this week’s Economist/YouGov poll said they approved of the plan to create the Space Force, while 42 percent said they disapproved.

"Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail and they will get this back into what it should be," Harrison said. "Which is a real intellectual debate about the best way to handle a matter of national security."

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