How did they do?

There was not much substance on the defense budget in Monday night’s debate. That’s hardly surprising, and the fact that the candidates kept slipping into domestic politics makes it clear that this is not a foreign policy campaign. President Obama mentioned the dreaded fiscal cliff only to say it would not happen. I’m not sure ...

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages

There was not much substance on the defense budget in Monday night's debate. That's hardly surprising, and the fact that the candidates kept slipping into domestic politics makes it clear that this is not a foreign policy campaign. President Obama mentioned the dreaded fiscal cliff only to say it would not happen. I'm not sure how he knows, since it is the law and will take a congressional deal to avoid. But the general silence on the subject indicates there is no political traction in the topic.

So, I posed a test on Monday for both candidates, and they took an incomplete on most of it. To wit:

1. Romney avoided his notion of spending 4 percent of GDP on defense. No points and a demerit for failing to recognize that defense budgets are going down anyway.

There was not much substance on the defense budget in Monday night’s debate. That’s hardly surprising, and the fact that the candidates kept slipping into domestic politics makes it clear that this is not a foreign policy campaign. President Obama mentioned the dreaded fiscal cliff only to say it would not happen. I’m not sure how he knows, since it is the law and will take a congressional deal to avoid. But the general silence on the subject indicates there is no political traction in the topic.

So, I posed a test on Monday for both candidates, and they took an incomplete on most of it. To wit:

1. Romney avoided his notion of spending 4 percent of GDP on defense. No points and a demerit for failing to recognize that defense budgets are going down anyway.

2. He ducked, as well, on whether his plan would add $2 trillion to defense, but he did not deny it, either. So no points either way.

3. They both stayed away from the subject of defense and the size of the GDP. No points.

4. Romney gets no bonus points, which he would have earned, for detailing a budget plan that paid for his $2 trillion add to the defense budget. Is there a plan?

5. A half a point to Romney for adding ships to the fleet and keeping the 100,000 troops, but that was already public. No full point, which he would have earned for a more detailed defense spending plan.

6. Romney loses a point for saying he would buy 15 ships a year, even though we have not done so since 1915.

7. One point loss to Romney for arguing that the Navy would be as small as it was in 1917 (he is actually wrong by about 30 ships). A bonus point to Obama for having the snappiest come-back of the debate.

8. A point loss to Romney for failing to say what Middle East country he would invade with the additional ground force. In fact, he would invade no country — a new commitment and maybe a bonus point for him.

9. No point loss for calling sequester "doomsday," but maybe a point loss for Romney for arguing that Obama was responsible for a trillion dollars in defense cuts when (a) the first $487 billion do not cut the budget but simply reduce the previously planned growth to a pace that keeps up with inflation, and (b) both these and the $500 billion from a sequester are the result of the Budget Control Act, which the Republican House supported.

10. See point 9.

11. Nobody gets a point for fiscal acumen; neither noted that even after a sequester the defense budget would start to grow, again.

12. Neither candidate noted that the FY 2013 defense budget would still be at the
FY 2007 level, pretty historically high for defense.

13. Neither candidate gets points for proposing how to fix the procurement system. They didn’t even talk about it.

14. Neither candidate gets points for history; neither noted that even with a sequester, the defense budget would decline less that it has in every previous defense draw-down (an average of 30 percent in constant dollars).

15. No points go to either candidate for political courage on military pensions. Neither called for reform of a system that deprives the military of a pension if they have served less than 20 years and then gives them a full pension regardless of age.

17. Can the Pentagon manage weapons programs with 9.4 percent fewer resources? Yes, but neither candidate said so. No points.

18. Budgets limit strategic appetite. Nobody said so Monday night. No points.

19. Neither candidate suggested that we do "less with less" in defense. No bonus points for a realistic military strategy, as a result.

20. Obama gets no points for admitting that there are no budgetary savings from ending the war in Afghanistan. He did not admit it, but, then, he did not claim the phantom savings, either. As I said in the last column: you can’t save money from money you never planned to spend in the first place.

We only had a faint echo of the reality we face in defense: we are in a defense drawdown because the wars are ending, the deficit must be lowered, the debt restrained, and the economy fixed. So no final round of applause for finally recognizing reality instead of political pandering.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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