My debate checklist: Center for American Progress' Brian Katulis
October 21st, 2012
05:52 PM ET

My debate checklist: Center for American Progress' Brian Katulis

By Brian Katulis, Special to CNN

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. The views expressed are his own.

If we've learned one thing about Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's foreign policy views during this campaign, it's that he's heavy on rhetoric and ideology but light on details.

For the past year, Romney has consistently failed to provide a clear alternative to President Obama's foreign policy program that goes beyond vague speechifying about "strength" and "leadership." Throughout the campaign, it became increasingly clear that Romney's rhetoric isn't an attempt to cover up an empty foreign policy agenda - it is the policy agenda.

There is a similarity between Romney's foreign and economic policy packages on this score. As economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote this past week, "the true plan is to provide an economic stimulus in the form of Romney's awesome awesomeness; the cover story is the pretense of having an actual program."

But relying on rhetoric in a debate format is harder to do. That's why I'll be watching closely and keeping track of how much Romney tries to stick to his playbook. Here is a list of catchphrases and buzzwords I'll be looking out for in Monday's debate. The more he uses these phrases, the less likely we'll hear concrete ideas.

Also: My debate checklist: AEI's Danielle Pletka

American Century: Romney often says his goal is an "American Century" but has provided precious little detail on what that means beyond cheerleading.

American exceptionalism: Equally frequently Romney has used this phrase in an attempt to smear President Obama as un-American.

Apology/apologize: Romney has repeatedly and falsely accused President Obama of "apologizing for America" overseas, and claims he never will. (link:

Leadership: Romney also often accuses President Obama of "diminishing American leadership" but has not provided a basic definition of "leadership" beyond a sense that talking tough will cause others to fall in line.

Also: Checking the candidates' facts on foreign policy and national security

"Strength" and "weakness": For Romney, "strength" and "weakness" are axiomatic - he is by definition strong, and President Obama is by definition weak because he fails to employ Romney's rhetoric. Romney and his supporters appear to believe that America's adversaries will cower, its allies will fall in line, and its overseas challenges will crumble if only the president mouths the right words and strikes the right symbolic poses. He and other conservatives appear to believe that the sheer force of Romney's rhetoric and personal "strength" and "resolve" will achieve America's foreign policy goals. Actual policy differences and plans of action are mere details, according to this view.

So when I watch the foreign policy debate Monday night, I'll be looking for how much rhetoric Romney uses and how many new, concrete proposals Romney offers that is different from what President Obama is doing. As the challenger, Romney has an obligation to more clearly tell the voters where he stands with and against President Obama in greater detail.

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Filed under: 2012 Election • Analysis • Barack Obama • Romney
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. American People

    The American People want to see Willard's tax returns for the last 20 years. Willard is a criminal for not disclosing income from off-shore accounts on his tax returns.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Reply
    • Matthew Tate

      And your one of the people that think that 14% of 20 million dollars is not enough in taxes? Do the math you will never pay that much, more less make that amount! Romney pays more money to charities than what most of us make. That's a good thing, and not something to be envious and jealous over. Sharing wealth negates initiative to achieve and earn. Businessmen look for returns on investments, lawyers look for ways around laws. Who do you think can fix the economy?!

      October 23, 2012 at 5:43 am | Reply
  2. Tom

    Perhaps its light on details because he does not have the resources of the State Department or National Security adviser yet. Give him the same resources available to the President, and I suspect a cogent approach would be forthcoming.

    October 21, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply

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