Mitt Romney is part of a cult — the cult of ever higher defense spending.

Republican members of this cult believe that the only way in today’s media and political culture to signal you are “strong” on defense is to propose a bigger defense budget than Democrats.

Democratic members of this cult believe that the only way to avoid losing elections to Republicans is to call for as much or more defense spending than the GOP.

Guess what happens to the boundaries of debate when this “my defense budget is bigger than yours” mentality dominates official Washington? As with so many pseudo-debates between the two parties, intelligent thinking — or, really, any thinking at all — is the first casualty.

Romney is plainly prepared to make that sacrifice in his quest for power. In his speech at the Citadel last week, and again in the GOP debate Tuesday night, Romney pledged to reverse President Obama’s “massive defense cuts.”

But since Obama hasn’t cut defense spending (he’s raised it for three years) – and since the president’s proposed trims from projected defense increases are a small fraction of what a saner America would undertake – Romney’s position is untenable. No matter. The thrust and parry it will set in motion assures that another campaign will pass with no questions asked about how our bloated defense establishment devours cash desperately needed for investments at home.

A few facts make the inanity clear:

Defense spending was about $740 billion in the fiscal year that just ended, up from $698 billion when Obama took office. Since we spent about $450 billion a year (adjusted for inflation) during the Cold War, that means we’re spending over 50 percent more today. But back then we faced a giant enemy nation with huge military arsenals, not nimble terrorist networks and smaller rogue states.

Romney sees these facts on the PowerPoint slide and says: Let’s take it up another $30 billion a year.

But the United States already accounts for nearly half of the world’s military spending. We spend about nine times more than China; 17 times more than Russia; and 33 times more than Iran, North Korea and Syria combined (according to “The Military Balance 2011,” published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies).

Meanwhile, the president’s proposed trims of roughly $400 billion over the next decade come off of a base of about $8 trillion in projected spending during that period, during which defense is set to rise to nearly $900 billion a year by 2021. The members of the cult scream that Obama’s “cuts” will devastate our security. But that’s impossible when it’s barely a 5 percent reduction from inflated future sums that are already half again higher than what we spent to tame the Soviet Union.

The way our two-party debate works, these common-sense perspectives will never be aired in the campaign. It’ll just be: “Barack Obama is threatening our security” vs. “No, I’m not because we both want to spend more on the Pentagon, me just a little more efficiently than you.” Next question?

The price of this pinched debate is enormous. In Los Angeles, where I live, state budget cuts have left schools in poor neighborhoods with classes swelling to 45 students. I spoke to a teacher the other day who has one class with 53 kids in it! Los Angeles has cut the school year to 175 days to save money. The U.S. average is 180. Many countries whose children will compete with ours for jobs put in 200 to 220 days a year. Similar cutbacks are occurring in school districts across America.

What’s the matter with us? Does anyone really think bankrolling a military empire while letting schools decay is a recipe for success? Mitt’s casual $30 billion a year Pentagon boost could pay for a national initiative to recruit a new generation of top college graduates to teach in our toughest, high-poverty schools.

Where’s Ike when we need him? Only a person with unquestioned military credibility can buck the cult of ever-higher defense spending. Here’s Eisenhower in his famous farewell address: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

America needs a phalanx of retired generals and admirals — and rising officers who can look at these facts and realize what they portend — to speak out and help the nation redefine what true security means. It will take a new brand of courage for military patriots to buck the incentives to keep the money flowing to the Pentagon and promote an agenda of national renewal instead. But what will it profit us to rule the world while we erode at home?