NEW YORK -- Faint, but at this late date we abstain from the new mandatory media pose of being clever and snide about the only two major presidential candidates we've got, and pause here to consider An Issue. (I know -- so quaint of us.)

The ever-thrilling topic of military spending is our text du jour. We seem to have two categories of comment about our candidates on the issues. The first is that there's not a dime's worth of difference between them, and the second is that they are separated by great yawning gulfs of difference and that the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Well, on the military, there are differences, but not enough.

George W. Bush wants to spend more on the military, and Al Gore wants to spend even more than that. The problem is that's not the problem. The problem is that we spend money on the military stupidly, and this in turn affects everything else, because this election is about choices and priorities.

More for the military means less for education, child care, health care and all the rest; the military is still the biggest ticket item in "discretionary" spending.

In recent years, we have paid for seven national commissions or major Pentagon studies of what needs to be done about the military, and the answers are pretty much the same in every case.

So now Bush says that if he's elected, there will be an eighth study. The consensus is that we need a military that is more flexible, more mobile and can be deployed more rapidly. In general, we need to quit fighting the last war, which was the Cold One.

The military is still set up for precisely that, which means we're fully prepared to respond to a threat that no longer exists and only arguably ready to respond to those that do. We're slow, and we're muscle-bound.

Spending is not the problem. The United States spends three times what China and Russia combined do on their militaries. We spend more on defense than the next 12 highest-spending nations added together.

But here's the kind of dumb thing we do: We have three next-generation fighter planes on line. The only way to get the price per plane down is make a lot of one kind, but we're going to make three kinds at an absolutely staggering cost per copy.

Then there is the dread influence of Congress on the military. The Pentagon would like to close more redundant bases, but you know how politicians hate to have bases in their districts closed. So the Senate has voted to put off any more base closings until at least 2002.

The Pentagon would also like to kill the Osprey tilt-rotor helicopter -- the one that keeps crashing -- but it is dear to the hearts of lawmakers in whose districts it is made.

Both major candidates say they are wedded to a National Missile Defense system -- the old Reagan Star Wars program tricked out with a new name. The theory is that we should spend at least $60 billion (and you can double or triple that) on the unlikely theory that someone somewhere may be nutty enough to try to lob a nuke at us. We would then, of course, wipe out the entire country, but we're assuming a leader too nutty to mind that.

The chief technical problem with National Missile Defense is that you can fool it -- it can't tell the difference between an incoming nuke and a herd of decoys. The chief diplomatic drawback is that it doesn't look like a defensive weapon to the Russians. To them it looks like first-strike capability -- we'd be able to wipe them out and they would have no chance to retaliate. This upsets the delightful balance of terror known as MAD -- mutual assured destruction. So the Russians see NMD as the end of every nuclear treaty we've ever signed with them.

If we're so muscle-bound and spend ridiculous amounts of money on redundant weapons systems, how come we keep hearing that American soldiers are on food stamps? Bush points this out frequently: How pathetic -- the very soldiers we put in harm's way reduced to food stamps. Actually, the number of soldiers who qualify for food stamps in about one in 200, and most of them qualify because of an odd accounting gizmo. Some off-base housing allowances are not counted as income, thus leading to the appearance of a lower income. But that's the kind of detail that often gets skipped during a campaign, isn't it?

For sheer waste, it's still impossible to top the Pentagon. Its accounting system is so pathetic that it literally cannot account for billions of dollars. One of the great Pentagon scams is double-dipping. As you know, the U.S. military has a fabulous pension system -- put in 20 years and retire at handsome pay. Then you go right back to work at the Pentagon, but this time hired as a civilian consultant at even higher pay, now also getting your handsome retirement pension. Cute, heh?

So what is the point of all this? Pretty much what it is across the board in this race: The candidates are not discussing real issues in a realistic way.

Gore may be the master of detail, but he is just as misleading as Bush about what needs to be done. Bush says we have "a military in decline" and that "for seven years the Clinton-Gore administration has failed to strengthen America's defenses" and that we have a "hollow force." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott says we're in "a downward spiral." This is pure eyewash, but no one is discussing what does need to be done. Maddening, isn't it?

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.