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.