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With Final Foreign Policy Debate Done, Candidates Start Swing State Sprint

October 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The candidates made an eager return to the campaign trail the day after their final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla. Gwen Ifill recaps debate highlights and looks at new ads. Judy Woodruff gets post-debate analysis from Nicholas Burns, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, and Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations.

GWEN IFILL:  The presidential candidates beat a path to battleground states today, starting an all-out push to the election.  It marked the beginning of the endgame, with 14 days to go.

The debates are over, but the campaign is picking up steam.  So, President Obama and Mitt Romney wasted no time today getting back out on the campaign trail.

With Election Day now only two weeks away, the candidates are devoting every waking minute to revving up the base and courting any remaining undecided voters in a handful of critical swing states.

For Mr. Obama this morning, that meant the campaign rally before an enthusiastic crowd in Delray Beach, Florida, not far from the site of last night’s face-off.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  You guys really are fired up.

GWEN IFILL:  Picking up where he left off last night, he told voters that Governor Romney is not a reliable choice.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  We’re accustomed to seeing politicians change their positions from, like, four years ago.  We are not accustomed to seeing politicians change their position from four days ago.


PRESIDENT OBAMA:  I mean, and we joke about ‘Romnesia,’ but you know what? This is — this is actually something important.  This is about trust.  There is no more serious issue in a presidential campaign than trust.

GWEN IFILL:  Doubling down on that argument, Vice President Joe Biden amplified the Democrats’ message at the University of Toledo in Ohio, before meeting up with the president later in the day for a joint rally in Dayton.

Mitt Romney headed west for a joint rally of his own with running mate congressman Paul Ryan.  The two told a roaring crowd in Henderson, Nevada, the president doesn’t deserve a second term.

MITT ROMNEY, Republican Presidential Candidate:  Can you afford four more years 23 million Americans looking for a good job?


MITT ROMNEY:  Can you afford four more years with housing prices going down a hill on the bottom?


MITT ROMNEY:  Can you afford four more years of doubling of the gasoline prices you’re paying?


MITT ROMNEY:  How about this instead?  Would you like to have four years where we create 12 million new jobs?


MITT ROMNEY:  How about four years — how about four years where we’re able to see rising take-home pay again?

GWEN IFILL:  Both campaigns sought to capitalize on their final debate, which focused mostly on foreign policy, much of that in the greater Middle East.

Seated arm’s length from Mr. Romney, the president repeatedly accused his Republican challenger of changing his positions out of political expedience.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan.  Then you said we should.  Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing and sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies.

So, what — what we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map.  And, unfortunately, that’s the kind of opinions that you’ve offered throughout this campaign.

GWEN IFILL:  Governor Romney said he agrees with many of the president’s actions in Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  But those policies, he said, have not been well executed.

MITT ROMNEY:  You look at the record of the last four years and say, is Iran closer to a bomb?  Yes.  Is the Middle East in tumult?  Yes.  Is  al-Qaida on the run, on its heels?  No.  Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years.  We have not seen the progress we need to have, and I’m convinced that with strong leadership and an effort to build a strategy based upon helping these nations reject extremism, we can see the kind of peace and prosperity the world demands.

GWEN IFILL:  Turning to the final stretch, the two campaigns released a flurry of television advertising to drive their points home.  In Governor Romney’s ads, he returned to the debate stage.

MITT ROMNEY:  America’s going to come back, and for that to happen, we’re going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle.

I will work with you.  I will lead you in an open and honest way.  And I ask for your vote.  I would like to be the next president of the United States to support and help this great nation.

GWEN IFILL:  The president’s advertising also focused on the choice voters face.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Read my plan.  Compare it to Governor Romney’s and decide which is better for you.

It’s an honor to be your president.  And I’m asking for your vote, so, together, we can keep moving America forward.

GWEN IFILL:  From here, it’s a sprint to November 6.  Following his afternoon rally, Romney headed to Colorado, then back to Nevada and on to Iowa tomorrow.  The president spends the next two days hitting eight states: Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, Illinois, and Ohio, as well as Burbank, Cal., for an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

JUDY WOODRUFF:  For more on last night’s debate, we turn again to two experts on foreign policy, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns, now with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Welcome to you both.

Let me just ask you to start.  Broadly speaking, what do we take away from last night’s debate in terms of how well these two candidates understand American foreign policy and would be a good steward of it?

Let me start with you, Nick Burns.

NICHOLAS BURNS, Former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs:  Well, Judy, this may sound startling to say in our present red-blue divided partisan environment, but I think we have two impressive people running for president.  They’re both knowledgeable.  They’re both very smart about the issues.  Both of them have been successful in nearly everything they have tried in their professional lives.

Now, President Obama clearly was the more knowledgeable and nuanced and I would say even sophisticated in the way he described the challenges to us on the foreign policy and national security landscape.  I thought that Governor Romney had a very strong moment in the debate, a very good moment when he tied together our domestic economy and our ability to sustain a strong military and a strong diplomacy overseas.

And he said in effect that if we have a failing economy at home, we are not going to be able to afford a first-rate foreign policy.  But I also think that this debate showed last night that there are very clear differences between those two, despite, you know, the drift of Governor Romney to the center last night.

They have different life experiences and different world views.  Governor Romney, there’s a quality to his — the way he talks about foreign policy.  It’s more back to the future, restore American leadership, American greatness.

President Obama, I think recognizing the reality that we’re operating in an era of limits, that we are pressed financially, so you saw in Libya in 2011, he pushed Britain and France out to leadership of that NATO operation to take down Col. Gadhafi. So very different world views.

And I think all the agreement last night shouldn’t mask the fact that we have a real choice on November 6.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, Richard Haass, how do you size up the two after last night?  And how do you see those differences?

RICHARD HAASS, President, Council on Foreign Relations:  Well, actually, I thought the similarities were greater than the differences.  And that to me was in some ways the most striking part of the debate.

Both, also, as Ambassador Burns pointed out, emphasized the integral, the close linkage between what we want to do abroad and what it is we’re doing here at home, that essentially foreign policy can only be successful abroad if we have the resource space and if we can set an example to the world.  And both of them emphasized that point.

They both also emphasized a lot the Middle East.  But there, I thought what was interesting wasn’t so much what they do, but what they wouldn’t do.  So, both candidates talked about the limits to the American involvement, say, in Syria.  They talked about the problems of a Pakistan and the challenges of dealing with a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt, but it wasn’t again clear to me, listening to it, what exactly they would do to keep things on the rails or, worse yet, if things went off the rails.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, Nick Burns, coming back to the point that both of you have made about the agreement, what did you make of the agreement that Gov. Romney seemed to have with the president’s policies on Iran, on when to leave Afghanistan, on Egypt, on drones, and especially compared with some of the language we have been hearing from Gov. Romney earlier in the campaign?

NICHOLAS BURNS:  Well, Judy I found it surprising.

And I can’t calculate the politics of this.  It may be good politics for him in those battleground states.  But in foreign policy, I think what most people should be looking for, most of us are looking for, is someone with core values, someone with a coherent and compelling world view, and someone with a plan to, you know, sustain American power.

It’s difficult I think now for Governor Romney because he’s campaigned for the last two years.  Through all those Republican debates, he had very different positions than last night on Iran, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, and on Russia.  Those are some of the biggest challenges ahead of us in 2013 and ’14.

And I think this does get to credibility.  I think he hurt himself last night in trying to be something that he has not been very consistently in the campaign trail.  And, on the other hand, I think what you saw from President Obama is someone with a fairly impressive international record of accomplishments in his first term and a very clear difference, I think, in where he would take us on some of those issues than Gov. Romney in a second term.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Richard Haass, how did you read the — I guess, the difference between the agreement of what we heard last night from Gov. Romney, the criticism in the past, and how do you square when Gov. Romney says he believes U.S. foreign policy is unraveling under this president, but then he proceeds, as he said, to agree with him on a number of points?

RICHARD HAASS:  Well, it was Richard Nixon I think it was who said when you run for the nomination, you have got to tack more towards the end zones, and when you’re in the general election, you have got to head towards the middle of the field.

So, none of that should surprise anybody.  And I also think incumbents have a certain structural advantage.  They have been wrestling with national security challenges for four years.  And someone, say, who is a governor, who hasn’t been a senator, say, on the Foreign Relations Committee is always going to have, I think, certain disadvantages.

With that said, the president also has problems of consistency.  I don’t think he did a good job last night in explaining his Iraq policy, about why it was the United States didn’t leave a residual force there.  And also, when you look at the Middle East, I will be honest with you, Judy, I don’t think you can have a policy of consistency.

The United States gets involved to get rid of Col. Gadhafi in Libya.  On the other hand, more than 30,000 Americans — 30,000 Syrians, rather, have lost their lives, and the United States has largely stood on the sidelines.  It’s not clear what we’re going to do if and when there are upheavals in places like Jordan, Bahrain or even Saudi Arabia.

So I’m not sure we have the luxury of consistency.  And I think what both of them were saying is that the Middle East is extraordinarily complex.  Gov. Romney said two interesting things, I thought.  One is that what the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be a template for the future.  The idea that we’re going to continue to send hundreds of thousands of Americans to remake other societies, that’s clearly a nonstarter.

And then he said — I think his phrase was, we can’t kill ourselves out of this mess, that there has to be something else dealing with extremism in the Muslim and Arab world other than simply traditional counterterrorism and drone attacks.

There has to be something larger to try to encourage the evolution of these societies, so essentially young men don’t make the career choice of becoming terrorists.  And I think that’s a big idea.  It’s easier to articulate it than implement it, but I think again to me it’s a welcome addition to the debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Nick Burns, what about those two points, and also what didn’t you hear?  Picking up on something you said a minute ago, what have you not heard now from these two men that voters should want to know before they go to the polls?

NICHOLAS BURNS:  Well, I guess, first here, Judy, I disagree that it doesn’t matter somehow that someone changes their positions.  To me, it matters very greatly.  It gets to a person’s credibility and consistency.

On two issues, for instance, Gov. Romney called Russia our number one adversary.  And now, last night, he took that back. Gov. Romney belittled sanctions and really belittled President Obama’s inclination to negotiate with Iran.  And last night, he took that back.

I think these differences matter.  I think the drift by Gov. Romney is troubling.  I would say, Judy, what was missing last night was a focus on the real difficult challenges that our next president is going to have, no matter who is elected.  On Iran, are we going to seek to negotiate a very difficult compromise with Iran, short of the use of force, or are we going to choose the use of force perhaps with Israel to stop them short?

And on the other hand, we’re going to have to also decide what to do about China and how to handle this very difficult balancing act.  We’re a major trade partner of China, but we have profound political and economic differences with them in East Asia.  There really was none of that last night, the real difficult challenges that the next president will have to embrace.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Richard Haass, just quickly on what was not — has not been talked about.  And what about the Russia point that Nick Burns just made?

RICHARD HAASS:  Well, countries like Russia, China and many others, you’re going to have this reality where they’re not going to be clearly adversaries.  They’re clearly not going to be allies.  It’s going to be in between.

This is going to be an era where nimble foreign policy is going to be the order of the day.  What we didn’t hear about was, say, anything about Mexico or really Latin America, about Africa, about climate change, about Japan or more broadly about Asia.  They talked about China, but Asia is getting in some ways — quote, unquote — “interesting” again.  In some ways, it reminds me of Europe of a century ago, where a lot of countries are beginning to get more assertive in their foreign policies.

You don’t have the regional institutions.  You don’t yet have the reconciliation of past frictions.  So my hunch is the new president is going to have to deal not simply with all the obvious challenges of the greater Middle East that we have come to know.  But my hunch is, he’s also going to have to deal with all these problems of the Asia-Pacific, as well as the lingering challenge of the Eurozone problem.

It is going to be a full foreign policy in-box for whoever is elected.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, it’s fascinating.  I don’t know how much more we’re going to hear about foreign policy between now and the election.  But we did hear about it last night.

And we thank you both for sharing your thoughts with us this evening.

Richard Haass and Nick Burns, thank you.


RICHARD HAASS:  Thank you.