On the Cain gaffe, the Perry gaffe, and what they do and don’t mean about Republican politics
November 15, 2011 15 Comments
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.