Debating Military Matters

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SAUL LOEB / AFP / GettyImages

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney following their first debate in Denver Wednesday night.

Wednesday night’s presidential debate focused on domestic matters, so no surprise that national-security mentions were scant.

As such, there was no talk of wars fought, being fought, and yet-to-be-fought, nor of the troops who have fought them. But because much of the debate dealt with federal spending, the Pentagon’s budget surfaced several times.

But both President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney focused narrowly on only one piece of the military-spending issue: Romney’s plan to dedicate 4% of the nation’s gross domestic product to the Pentagon.

Obama mentioned it four times, although he didn’t cite the 4% formula. Instead, he shortened it to the increased funding some economists say it would send to the Pentagon over the coming decade:

…and [add] $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn’t asked for…on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military…and $2 trillion in additional military spending…and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for…

Romney didn’t argue with Obama’s broken record.

It’s worth noting that presidents get to pick their military leaders. That makes it unsurprising that Obama’s current crop of commanders hasn’t asked for more money. President Romney’s military brass would no doubt take a different approach based on the people he tapped for those slots.

It’s also worth noting that Romney didn’t detail how he plans to spend a lot more money on the military without increasing the federal deficit.

Romney mentioned the military twice, both times suggesting that the 50% hike in U.S. military spending since 9/11 is untouchable and, in fact, needs to keep going up by about $200 billion a year. He didn’t cite numbers, but simply declared that America requires an ever-growing military budget.

We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means a military second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America’s military.

(Nice the way he deftly wove the Aerospace Industries Association’s let’s-keep-defense-spending-where-it-is mantra – Second to None – into his pledge.)

Romney returned to the issue in the final words of his closing statement:

[If] the President’s re-elected you’ll see dramatic cuts to our military. The secretary of defense has said these would be even devastating. I will not cut our commitment to our military. I will keep America strong and get America’s middle class working again.

(Not sure if he means to suggest that the way to get the middle class “working again” is to increase military spending, but it can be read that way…this trope has become a favored Republican talking point as the defense budget, especially in lean economic times, has shifted from a tax to defend the nation to more of an entitlement for a well-paid weapons-building guild.)

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Of course, there are no “dramatic cuts” in Obama’s future defense plan; military-spending experts say it contains “nearly zero real growth.” For normal people,. that means it keeps going up, but not as fast as inflation. You know, like your paycheck.

Those “dramatic cuts” will come only if sequestration happens in January. That’s a deal Obama and the Congress, including the Republican-led House, struck last year when they failed to come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package on their own. You know, like adults.