Election 2012

Obama and Romney Agree: We Spend Too Much Money, So Obviously We Can't Cut Defense Spending

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Is there any issue where the two presidential campaigns are more incoherent than on defense spending? 

Here's GOP nominee Mitt Romney's basic position: The federal government spends way too much money, and is on a path to fiscal ruin. So obviously we can't have defense cuts. 

Here's President Obama's basic position: The United States spends an absolutely absurd amount of money on defense, and it prevents us from spending here at home. So obviously we can't have defense cuts. 

The best part? The cuts they're worried about aren't even cuts at all. The military cuts that both of the candidates are focused on are part of "sequestration" — the spending reductions called for as a result of last year's deal to raise the federal debt limit. At last night's debate, both candidates highlighted their opposition to defense spending curbs called for by the agreement. 

A slightly longer version of Mitt Romney's argument might go like this. Federal deficits have been unacceptably large under Obama, and we need to balance the budget without raising taxes, which will mean cutting federal spending from about 24 percent of the economy down to 20 percent. That will involve cutting a few pennies worth of foreign aid and funding for NPR, and also cutting some other stuff which he won't name.

What it won't involve is reducing defense spending. According to Romney, our Navy has too few ships and our Air Force is smaller than ever. "I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars," he said at the debate last night, pointing to the "sequestration cuts" as reductions he specifically opposed. 

Obama responded to Romney's budget criticisms by pointing to how much we already spend. "Keep in mind that our military spending has gone up every single year that I've been in office," he said. "We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined; China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, you name it. The next 10." We need a defense budget that's concerned with capabilities, not outdated measures of force size, he argued. And we should remember that spending on sending troops abroad means less money to spend domestically. "What I think the American people recognize is after a decade of war it's time to do some nation building here at home," he said.

So of course the sequester is a budgetary red line that Obama promises we will not cross. "The sequester is not something that I've proposed," he said. "It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen." 

Never mind that Obama signed off on the deal. Here's what it would look like if it did go into effect, via Reason columnist and Mercatus Center fellow Veronique de Rugy:

Over the next decade, defense spending would continue to rise under the sequestration "cuts." And since we spend more on defense than the next 10 countries combined, and our debt levels and federal budget path are totally unsustainable, we obviously can't let that happen.