Is it possible to set 'watching' as the default for all users?

When a user replies to a post, the default is ‘tracking’. Is it possible to set this default to ‘watching’?

There is a Preference for this.
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You should use user preference site setting default other notification level when replying to change it for all new users.

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Is there a way to change the default preference for existing users, similar to what you can do with How do I set category tracking level defaults historically ?

Ideally this process would change the default for those users who haven’t touched their default, and respect the option for users who have changed their preference.

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Yes, the site setting offers to make this change for you now when you change it. This is a very new feature in latest.

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