President Barack Obama used the final presidential debate Monday night to hit back aggressively against claims that his budget will gut the U.S. military, something the Republican Party has been using as a political cudgel against him all year.
At the same time, he raised questions about GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s own plans to increase military spending, saying “the math doesn’t work.”
The president predicted that the deep defense spending cuts mandated by the “sequestration” process, which would go into effect if Congress cannot reach a deficit-cutting deal in the coming months, “will not happen.”
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has promised to increase military spending to 4 percent of the gross domestic product, including expanding the size of the Navy and Air Force. He said he can pay for that and “get to a balanced budget within eight to 10 years” by “reducing spending in a whole series of programs,” including, most notably, repealing the health insurance overhaul that Obama and Congressional Democrats pushed into law in 2010.
Obama barely let Romney finish explaining what other cuts he would make to offset the bump in military funding before cutting in.
“Gov. Romney’s called for $5 trillion of tax cuts that he says he’s going to pay for by closing deductions. Now, the math doesn’t work, but he continues to claim that,” Obama said. “He then wants to spend another $2 trillion on military spending that our military is not asking for.”
Romney did not get a chance to rebut those claims during the debate, although he has said in the past that the numbers Obama quoted are not accurate.
In contrast, Obama said his focus was on military capabilities, and he made sure to recount the many conversations and consultations he has conducted with military brass on the subject as the sitting commander-in-chief.
“What I did was work with our joint chiefs of staff to think about, what are we going to need in the future to make sure that we are safe?” the president said.
When Romney began to reel off statistics on the shrinking size of the Navy — at its smallest since 1917 — and the Air Force — smaller than at any time since its founding in 1947 — Obama came back with one of the toughest zingers of the night, and perhaps of his campaign.
“Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed,” Obama said. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
“The question is not a game of Battleship,” the president continued.
It’s the most combative the president has sounded on the issue — maybe too combative for some swing voters, commentators said afterward. But it’s in keeping with the tone of the debate in which Republicans have attempted to pin the responsibility for sequestration squarely on the president, despite the fact that a majority of lawmakers — including Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, voted for it.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) took issue with the remark in a statement released after the debate by Romney’s campaign. Virginia, in addition to being a key presidential swing state, is home to the Navy’s Atlantic fleet.
“President Obama’s dismissive comments about the Navy tonight should be concerning for any voter who cares about the safety and security of Americans at home and abroad,” McDonnell said. “His flippant comment about ‘horses and bayonets’ was an insult to every sailor who has put his or her life on the line for our country.”
Republicans were also ramping up their line of attack on sequestration even before the debate was over. Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), issued a statement while the debate was still going on, noting that “the Republican-led House has passed legislation to prevent the damaging defense cuts — the President still doesn’t have a plan to prevent the sequester.”
And Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement that while Romney demonstrated in the debate that he would promote “a strong defense,” Obama “has stood in the way of preventing the automatic military cuts through sequestration.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), however, echoed Obama’s optimism on avoiding the sequester in an interview on CNBC after the debate.
“I can tell you, when the president’s re-elected, I expect … for him to sit down, even during the lame-duck session, and come up with an approach that’ll avoid the sequester and really move us on a path to reducing the deficit while still pushing this recovery forward,” Durbin said.
Sequestration would cut about $500 billion from military budgets over the next decade. That’s on top of the $487 billion decrease in planned budgets that is already proposed over the same time period.
Romney, for his part, promised that he will “not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is making our future less certain and less secure.”
Megan Scully and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.