Gordon Adams

Do the Math

A 20-question debate scorecard for real talk on the defense budget.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

There has been so much erroneous and distracting information about the defense budget in this campaign that it is almost impossible to sort through. Mostly the public doesn’t care, but Monday night the candidates might just be required to talk about it.

To date, the candidates have said little. Mitt Romney proposes adding significant money to the defense budget, and has proposed building 15 ships a year and increasing the size of the ground forces. Barack Obama says his budget is "just right," that the services agree, and that his challenger wants to add money for which the military has not asked.

Maybe we will see something more substantive tonight, though I doubt it. It would be nice to have a defense budget debate that stood on its feet, rather than the talking points standing on their head that we have heard so far. Rather than write what they should say, perhaps a scorecard will be the best for which we can hope.

So here are 20 questions and a scorecard on the defense budget. Keep track at home:

1. If Romney truly says he is committed to providing 4 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) to the Pentagon, score him one point for honesty; his surrogate, Dov Zakheim, said on Oct. 18 that was a hard Romney commitment. If he agrees that the defense budget should go down if the GDP declines, give him a bonus point for consistency, but take away half a point for fiscal foolishness.

2. If Romney tells us that his GDP commitment will add $2 trillion additional dollars to the current 10-year defense budget projection, give him a point for honesty. If he denies it will add $2 trillion, take away a point for inadequate math skills.

3. If either candidate acknowledges that measuring defense budgets as a share of GDP is, at best, only a question that answers itself ("How much is defense as a share of GDP? 4 percent! Thanks, now I know the defense share of GDP, but nothing more."), give that man a point. It does not tell you how much we actually spend, in real dollars, on defense, nor that that spending is at its highest point, in constant dollars since the end of World War II.

4. If Romney provides a detailed budget plan, including the tax benefits he plans to eliminate, and the entitlement cuts and domestic spending cuts he will make to ensure that he can add that $2 trillion to defense, give him two bonus points.

5. If Romney provides a detailed, budgeted plan for what he would spend the additional $2 trillion for defense doing, give him another bonus point.

6. If Romney says he would buy 15 ships a year for the Navy, despite the fact that we have not bought that many ships in any year since 1986, take a point away.

7. If Romney says we need those ships or else the Navy would be the smallest we have had since 1915 and fails to explain why we need a larger one (given the fact that the U.S. Navy is clearly the largest in the world today), take another point away.

8. If Romney says he wants to retain the 100,000 ground force troops now leaving the force and add more personnel on top, but fails to tell us what new Middle East country he plans to occupy with those forces, take a point away.

9. If either candidate says a defense sequester would be "doomsday" and the end of our national security, take two points away. The sequester would be tough but manageable, not Armageddon.

10. If Romney blames Obama for "cutting" defense but fails to note: 1) that the cuts of the last two years were made by the appropriators in the Congress, including a Republican House, and 2) that the Obama defense projection over the next 10 years grows with the rate of inflation, take two points away.

11. If either candidate acknowledges that even a sequester in January would still allow the defense budget to grow after FY 2013, that candidate gets a point for fiscal acumen.

12. If either candidate notes that a defense sequester would leave us at the level of the FY 2007 defense budget, a historic high at the time, give that candidate a point.

13. If either candidate proposes a truly workable way to fix the defense procurement system so we don’t pay twice as much as we expected for most of our defense weaponry, defer any point award or take a point away; it is always promised, never delivered.

14. If either candidate acknowledges that even a sequester would reduce the defense budget over 10 years less than every defense drawdown we have executed in the past 60 years, give them a bonus point for honesty and knowledge of budgetary history.

15. If either candidate says they will reform the defense retirement system so serving members can vest a pension before they have served 20 years, but only draw that pension when they reach 57 (like civil servants), give that candidate two bonus points for politically suicidal honesty and leadership.

16. If either candidate says he will cut funding for operations and maintenance spending , forcing the services to reduce the size of the enormous Pentagon "back office," two bonus points for recognizing and being willing to tackle one of the key sources of our over-spending on defense.

17. If either candidate says Pentagon weapons program managers can actually manage a program with 9.4 percent fewer resources than originally budgeted, two more points for honesty. (They do it regularly and know how, without doing damage to the program.)

18. If Obama says the FY 2013 budget request was strategy-driven, based on the strategy laid out by Secretary Leon Panetta in January, take away two points. Strategy is always fiscally constrained. We would not have had a mid-course strategy review if the budgets had not already been going down, forcing such a review.

19. If either candidate acknowledges that we need to plan to do less with less, instead of more with less, two bonus points.

20. If Obama acknowledges that the savings he plans to take from ending the Afghanistan war are non-existent, give him a point for honesty. There are no future savings from ending the war, because the Pentagon has no programmatically driven war budget planned in the future (neither did George W. Bush, by the way). You can’t save money from money you never planned to spend in the first place.

And finally, a bonus scorecard: If either candidate acknowledges that we are in a defense drawdown — because the wars are ending, the deficit must be lowered, the debt restrained, and the economy fixed — given them a big round of applause for finally recognizing reality, instead of political pandering.

Good luck with this; debits are likely to abound.

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