October 23rd, 2012
10:01 AM ET

Zakaria: Is it a debate when the candidates agree?

President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney traded barbs in their foreign policy debate on Monday - but are they really so different?

Fareed Zakaria weighed in with post-debate analysis on CNN. Here's an edited transcript of some of that conversation with CNN's Anderson Cooper.

    On differences between the candidates:

Romney in video clip: The greatest threat of all is Iran four years closer to a nuclear weapon. And we're going to have to recognize that we have to do as the president's done. I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al Qaeda, but we can't kill our way out of this mess.

Cooper: Are those the policies he would actually have in place as president? Do we know where he is? Because it didn't seem there was much difference. He seemed to be agreeing with President Obama an awful lot.

Zakaria: But I think David [Gergen's] point is exactly right. Romney actually, where he attacked Obama, attacked him from the left. He said: "You don't have enough of a civil society strategy. You don't have enough of an education strategy toward Islamic extremism. You're the cowboy."

What's strange here is this was a version of what Mitt Romney did in the first debate. Which is to say, Romney surprised Obama in the first debate by being more centrist: "I'm not going to do anything to raise the deficits, whatever you may have heard about my tax plan." Except this time Obama was ready...

Related: Q&A with Fareed: How different are the policies, really?

Cooper: Do you think [the debate] moved the needle in any direction?

Zakaria: I think it wasn't a debate as much as a discussion. Because, as I said, Romney agreed with Obama so much in a surprising way.

The one area where I wonder whether Obama gained an advantage is that he quite effectively pointed out that Romney was indecisive or had waffled on an issue. And he kept saying, "Being commander in chief, being president, is about being consistent. I said I'd do this when I started." I think that was probably the most effective line of attack that Obama had.

On China's reaction

Cooper: It was interesting to hear both candidates talking tough about China. The question is, what can they actually do down the road?

Zakaria: Well, it's interesting to get a sense of the Chinese reaction. I've talked to many Chinese, and they had always thought going into this campaign that they were going to like Romney. There are three things they love. He's an American businessman and they generally admire the American businessman. He's a Republican, and in general, over the last 30 or 40 years, the Chinese have thought the Republicans were the party of business, generally more free trade. And three, he organized the Olympics, and the Chinese also went through the Olympics [organization]. So it has been a rude surprise to them that Romney has been so tough.

And even in this debate, what you notice is this: In this version, Obama kept saying "look, they could be a partner, we want to cooperate with them." But Romney hammered away for the most part. This was the place where he softened his tone least. In most of the other areas, Benghazi, for example, it was almost a complete reversal. On China, he was softer but still pretty tough. So I imagine in Beijing they're very reluctantly coming to the conclusion that whatever America may want, they want continuity, not change.

On undecided voters

Cooper: It was interesting to see our focus group [of undecided voters] when asked if [the debate] had changed people's minds and if people had now kind of gone in their direction. It seemed like a majority of them raised their hands saying [the debate] had pushed them toward one direction or the other, but they didn't specify.

Zakaria: There's a very small sliver of people you're looking at. And you can even see the occasional chances that Romney took to distinguish himself [especially] directed at domestic politics.

So, for instance, Florida is very much in play. There are a lot of Jewish voters there, and Romney decided on Iran he was going to take one further step and say that he would indict Ahmadinejad, presumably for war crimes. I'm not sure how you can do that...But clearly that was a kind of rhetorical flourish directed at a very specific set of voters who he was trying to sway.

Topics: 2012 Election

soundoff (129 Responses)
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    November 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
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