On the Cain gaffe, the Perry gaffe, and what they do and don’t mean about Republican politics

Herman Cain performed poorly on Monday — as all candidates will at some point(s), who slog through the juggernaut of a hotly contested presidential primary.

Cain’s answer underscores a fatal weakness in his candidacy, despite his popular strengths of straight-shooting authenticity and business common sense: this is a man who simply hasn’t thought much about America’s role in the world or the complex question of what to do, or not to do, with America’s military might.

Cain’s answer is not, however, so indefensible, it is not, in my opinion, comparable to Rick Perry’s more telling gaffe in forgetting his own far-fetched talking point, and it is certainly not the evidence I see touted in so many liberal comments and posts of an intellectually bankrupt Republican field.

Here is what Herman Cain’s answer should have been (and I base this reconstruction on what he actually did say, so inartfully, not simply on what my ideal notion of a politician should have said), and something like what I think his campaign position will come to be, if his campaign recovers:

Which part of President Obama’s Libya’s policy are you talking about? The decision to bomb the country? The decision to bomb and put boots on the ground without congressional authorization? The decision to denounce Qaddafi even though the president had pointedly declined to denounce the tyrants in Iran, who were a far graver threat to the interests of the United States? The decision to supposedly turn over operations to NATO and Europe? The fiction that NATO somehow meant American non-involvement? The failure to articulate any clear American goal, and therefore simply to let events play out, which events could have played out very differently — and the ultimate consequences of which we still do not know?

It’s impossible to give a simplistic yes or no answer to your question about agreement, or not, with President Obama’s “Libya policy” — and not merely because the president obviously had access to abundant classified information that none of us yet has, but also because there are multiple elements, and still-moving and unresolved targets, in that “Libya policy,” whatever it is.

To ask me or anyone outside the privileged circle of highly classified information, what would you have done differently in Libya? generates an artificial and unlevel playing field. But I can tell you what I would have emphasized from the beginning: who are these opposition forces? What ideologies guide them? What political, religious and social goals? Are they true supporters of democracy, as the jilted protesters in Iran, whom this administration quietly allowed to be crushed, appeared to be? What happens if they take power? Is it better than Qaddafi? Can American seriously influence the winners in a post-Qaddafi Libya?

And I can tell you that I would have sought to articulate clear American goals, with which the American people could agree or disagree, rather than trying so hard and haplessly to have it both ways: to remove American fingerprints when all the world could still see American fingerprints. That’s a transparently insincere foreign policy — a policy designed to take specious credit for good results and retain specious deniability for bad results, and that’s unworthy of American greatness.

Well, okay, it’s got a tiny bit of the flavor of what my ideal notion of a politician should have said — but if you listen closely to Cain’s ham-fisted response, he’s essentially saying, wait a second, Libya? not a single policy with which one can simply agree or disagree. And that’s already an astute instinct, even though he failed, unpresidentially, to process the flaw of the question quickly enough.

Now contrast that with Rick Perry’s gaffe — where he simply forgot his own massively pandering talking point. He didn’t receive a question — “Governor Perry, what departments of the federal government would you abolish if you were president?” — he started the silly point himself and just couldn’t finish it. And the point was not a technical or complex one. It was very nearly as basic as political rhetoric gets, especially for a man who has authored (?) a book about the many sins of the federal government.

So I don’t have any sympathy for Michelle Malkin’s miscomparison, “Cain makes Rick Perry look like a Mensa president,” or James Carville’s misdirected swipe that Cain “made Rick Perry look like Henry Kissinger.” These are the breezy sound-bites for people with no interest in context.

And now that we’re done debating who’s less qualified, between Cain and Perry, to be president of the United States — the frothy game the unprecedented Republican debate circus enables (while we put aside the gaffes and missteps of candidate and President Obama, never mind Vice President Biden, outside any debate or gotcha’ context) — perhaps it warrants a moment of reflection on how generally well-spoken, articulate and well-informed some Republicans and Republican candidates are.

Neither the Cain moment nor the Perry moment highlight the gifts of the Republican opposition to the Obama presidency. But neither do they bespeak some basic Republican deficit in tackling our nation’s challenges. Much less do they warrant the gleeful schadenfreude of so many on the left who seize upon these two moments for evidence (as I have seen so tiresomely repeated in columns, posts and comments) that all Republican candidates, even all Republicans, are stupid.

95% of the authors of these savaging columns, posts and comments have not actually watched the Republican debates, as opposed to taking their favored source’s description of the debates and then issuing sweeping conclusions about intelligence. (Oh my the irony.) It must be great fun to be in the third-class peanut gallery, watching the second-class peanut gallery watching what happens, and opining so serenely on incompetence.

What is not great fun, what is grueling and exhausting beyond the capacity of most in either peanut gallery to comprehend, is running for president in a hotly contested primary with multiple debates, press conferences and public appearances. And yet we’re seeing consistently good and nimble performances from Mitt Romney, who quickly encapsulates complex issues as well as I have ever seen in presidential debates, surprisingly steadfast performances from a very well-informed (but baggaged) Newt Gingrich, consistent, if a bit ideologically obsessed, straight-talk from Ron Paul, a refreshing focus on the content and mechanics of problem-solving from Herman Cain, an impressive grasp of some issues (and then not others) from Michelle Bachmann, a bit petulant but often trenchant observations from Rick Santorum, a kind of floating-a-bit-too-far-above-it-all but plainly well-informed Jon Huntsman, and Rick Perry (who candidly runs on his record as opposed to his debating skills).

There is much with which to agree and disagree in all of these performances, and much to contest as to matters of emphasis, tone and presidential stature. But it’s the Republican party doing the serious and exhausting debating — that thing we purport to celebrate as a critical fixture of democracy (not being, as we all imagine ourselves not being, ideological automatons).

So, a little respect please, between easy guffaws at the gaffes.


15 Responses to On the Cain gaffe, the Perry gaffe, and what they do and don’t mean about Republican politics

  1. Terrance H. says:


    I definitely don’t buy the idea that the Republican field is made up of intellectual midgets. Newt Gingrich, for example, while morally bankrupt in my opinion, is quite brilliant. You have to give credit when due.

    I also don’t think Herman Cain would be where he is today if he were a simpleton. I’m not sure any of those people would be where they are today if they were all stupid people.

    I don’t think George Bush is a stupid person, either. I think he’s inarticulate. But even the most articulate of people are going to fumble, stumble, and forget once in awhile. It’s part of being human.

    Nobody, as they say, is perfect. My problem with the Republican field is almost entirely issue related. I don’t think Michelle Bachmann is particularly bright, but I could be wrong about that. She might be a smart person that simply believes some very strange, incredibly odd, so-far-off-the-wall, outrageous stuff. It’s possible.

    • You have a balanced take Terrance. And I agree about Bush as well. It always made me cringe that he couldn’t or wouldn’t make a more compelling case for the Iraq war. Definitely not the Great Communicator. I actually thought Obama might be the Great Communicator, despite our contrary politics, but he’s dropped that ball in my opinion.

  2. Terrance H. says:


    I have to ask something, though.

    You worked in Washington for a long time, if I recall. You know your way around the issues. Why haven’t you given a thought about running for president?

    I’m not joking. I’m actually serious.

    • LOL, thanks for the vote of confidence my friend. But please simply trust me, and don’t make me humiliate myself by detailing the 650 reasons why I couldn’t get elected to the local PTA. Not candidate material. Thanks again though, you made me smile (and so soon after the other reason you made me smile!).

  3. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    You’re a hopeless romantic and Republican, Kendrick.

    I wish these candidates knew how lucky they are to have you in their camp. Cain is not fit to be President. Anyone could have generated the soundbite, “I would have assessed the situation before acting.” That sounds reasonable, huh? However, it doesn’t really reveal any strategic thinking or understanding of global politics and history. But anyone can utter those few words and then spend a painful, and BS-laden 5 minutes talking around that sentence. There is NO doubt in my mind that Obama assessed the situation before acting. The history of Qaddafi is that previous administrations had supported him, too. He was making pretend gestures to fool the world into believing that his country was moving more to some middle-ground. Obama’s approach was worse than Bush’s Bush doctrine? Worse than the prolonged belief in nation-building?

    Of course, these individuals are brighter than the average citizen – but in some instances they only speak and act brighter than the average third grader. But this is running for POTUS, not head of the cheerleading squad. Cain, for God’s sake, ought to be prepared enough to speak on global issues without having to search through the attic to find his weak stance on the topic. Perry ought to have thought through his position on reforming government so that his answer to demolishing agencies is forefront in his head.

    Along with the laughter they all produce in us Democrats are sound reasons for discarding them. We don’t care how brilliant Newt or the rest are. We toss aside Newt because he’s morally reprehensible. We toss aside the others because their religious and social views are anathema to ours and reveal a world view that is rigid and exclusive.

    Claiming that we ought to give them a break because, after all, they have a brutal debate schedule, isn’t justification for excusing or ignoring the gaffes. Being President is brutal 24-7. And, believe me, I’m not laughing at the gaffes and the idiotic comments coming from most of them. Usually, I just feel sick. 🙂

    • Thanks Jean. As Democratic indictments of the field go, yours is fairly benign. I have to reluctantly agree that Cain is not the man for the job. But I had certain reservations about Cain (including, ironically, his shallowness on foreign policy and national security issues) long before his gaffe — and it was also enormously galling to me that the Bill Maher types were insisting that those racist Republicans would never nominate a black guy — as if to set up yet another slander of Republicans when they declined to nominate Herman Cain for objective reasons that are becoming clear to everyone, well, see, Republicans are racist.

      Not sure why you would include Romney and Huntsman, neither of whom you mention by name, in your broad indictment. Both are very smart, articulate, and in the case of Romney, by definition cannot be “rigid and exclusive” because he successfully governed as a Republican in one of the bluest states in the nation.

      • Snoring Dog Studio says:

        I don’t think I wholeheartedly included Romney, and much less Huntsman. I don’t know much about Huntsman at all. As far as Romney, I wish he’d just stop being so apologetic (or embarrassed?) about what he did in Massachusetts. Own it, bro! It’s okay – some of us Dems might actually be okay with you as Pres.

        I can’t stand, can’t tolerate Bill Maher. He is so not amusing.

        • Cheers Jean! Thank you for the Bill Maher comment. I’ve been quietly fuming about Bill Maher for a while because I do not understand his popularity. He embodies the worst of venality, hate, condescension and cynicism (never mind 1% wealthy!), in my opinion. As for Romney, he’s whip-sawed — Republican governor of Massachusetts, with both houses of the state legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, and he did what he did, including health care. But he has *not* apologized for health care in his state, to his credit (in my opinion). I just had a conversation with a Republican friend recently who suggested that Romney should have repudiated RomneyCare early on in his campaign, and that would have made him a more viable challenger to ObamaCare in the general election. I disagreed. I agree with you. Own what you did and defend it — and that’s what I think Romney has actually done. In addition to key distinctions between RomneyCare and ObamaCare in the details of the initiatives (as well as provisions he vetoed that the legislature overrode), Romney credibly distinguishes between state-level health care initiatives versus a federal health care initiative with national mandates, one-size-fits-all regulations, a half-a-trillion dollar tax increase, and massive cuts in Medicare. He says, and I agree, the states are the proper laboratories for complex policy initiatives — and historically, our nation has benefited from this dynamic (e.g., Wisconsin adopted a progressive income tax before the federal government did). Moreover, states (not being able to print money or run astronomical deficits indefinitely) are more constrained than the federal government with respect to the cost of policy initiatives. And that, too, is instructive — perhaps never more so than now, when even the federal government simply cannot keep spending without accountability. We learn from the states. And it is fair to say that RomneyCare, to whatever extent it works or doesn’t work in Massachusetts (different views), does not translate workably to the national level. The proper analysis of state-level versus federal-level initiatives is fundamentally different. I’m not sure whether Republicans in the primary will appreciate these distinctions — but I admire Romney for making the case.

  4. William says:

    Like many Americans, I’m still shopping for my Republican candidate. For a while, I thought it might be Mr. Cain.

    “Herman Cain? LOVE the guy!” That’s how many of us react to him. Hmm. That reaction is significant in politics. Maybe Cain has a little of the Reagan DNA – a charming guy who makes us laugh, is right on most of the issues, and is unwavering in his positions and ideals.

    SCRRREEEEECH! Oops, hit the brakes there. I’ve finally reached my limit with Cain’s backtracking. Too often he states a position and then “clarifies” (reverses) it the following day.

    Wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to the cabinet. Scratch that – WOULD appoint a Muslim.

    Sorta pro-choice. Scratch that – pro life.

    Would negotiate with terrorists. Scratch that – would NEVER negotiate with terrorists.

    I know my position on issues. You can wake me up in the middle of the night and ask, and my sleepy-eyed response won’t need to be modified or reversed a day later. I think that’s true of most Americans. And we’re not running for president.

    Right now we have a president who is in over his head and is destroying this country. Cain does not share President Obama’s invincible ignorance, and Cain will govern more intelligently.

    Cain? Love the guy. But we need more experience.

    Solid experience in the private sector and politics is probably the background we need in our next president. A businessman who knows his way around Washington.

    That probably points to Newt. And I’ll save opening THAT can of worms for another day…

    Forgive the rambling here –

    Excellent post, Kendrick.


    • Thanks Mac! I agree with you — and your own evolution I think mirrors the evolution of a lot of Republicans who saw in Cain (especially against a backdrop of Tea Party-party inspired disenchantment with business/politics as usual in Washington DC) a refreshing breath of outsider air, a folksy and engaging manner, and an apparently solid grasp of at least key domestic issues (foreign policy has always been a bit suspect). And frankly, as smooth as Obama is, I’d still like to see that debate — between Obama and Cain, with race entirely dispatched as an issue, accusation, defense, subtext, or cultural distortion — and watch the older man with abundant real-world business experience, that is, experience in doing the kinds of things that America desperately needs right now versus the younger man, the academician, the community organizer, who has never run a business or even been meaningfully part of any business — you know, those reviled entities that hire people. Honestly, I cannot predict what the result would be, but I believe we’d be educated and entertained by that exchange as perhaps we never have been before by a presidential debate. Not gonna’ happen though. Cain well illustrates why it is difficult to show up suddenly in national politics, never having done politics before, and presume to be a quick enough study to win a presidential nomination.

      Newt is experiencing an interesting surge, but at this point I don’t believe he reaches enough independents. He’s a divisive figure (by reputation, not so much by his comportment in the last few months), much like Sarah Palin would have been. Personally, I see Mitt Romney as the best standard-bearer, in terms of experience, knowledge, articulateness, grasp of domestic and foreign policy, and ability to work with both parties. His biggest weakness right now (surviving an inevitable surge of anybody-but-Romney in the Republican primaries) will become a strength in the general election because more independents and even some conservative Democrats will gravitate to his track record of getting things done even when his party is not in power.

      • William says:

        Yes, Romney probably stands a better chance than Newt, but I’m like so many others — dying to see an Obama/Newt debate! Romney looks presidential, but I remain lukewarm. However — I’ll support any of the Republican contenders in the presidential election, and when he (or she) defeats Obama on election day, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief that this country has dodged a fatal bullet…

  5. lobotero says:

    Kendrick, a great post…….to me, as an outsider, Huntsman is an adult in a room full of wannabies……I look for experience and Hunts man has Foreign policy, business and political that makes him on a level the rest can only dream about.

    BTW, I agree with Terrance….you have a clean level mind….you would be an excellent candidate and debater…..

    • Thanks Lobotero! I agree with you about Huntsman, though I don’t see him as any more adult than Romney or Gingrich for example. I actually think Romney and Gingrich are probably a bit better-informed than Huntsman, though both have different types of baggage that Huntsman doesn’t have.

      As for running for president, I now have two liberal Democrats on my steering committee for the Republican primaries. Can anybody stop me?? 🙂

      • William says:

        In the Macdowell 2012 campaign staff, who will be in charge of the inevitable bimbo eruptions? Ha ha.

        • Now we’re putting together the rudiments of a platform. “Vote for me. What do all those bimbos not see in me?”

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