Herman Cain is theoretically a great candidate for president. He's a smart, black, successful, conservative "outsider." But as the reality sets in, it's clear that Mr. Cain is barely more ready for the office he seeks than Sarah Palin (or Barack Obama) was four years ago. Cain's performance in a long interview on Monday crystallized this view which has been forming in the minds of many GOP voters in recent weeks.
Mr. Cain's responses in Saturday's Republican debate in South Carolina -- which focused on foreign policy -- were a bunch of platitudes about getting good advice before making a decision. Frequently, his answers on topics that he doesn't really know much about focus on a few points of process, on getting quality advice, on not needing to know everything in advance, and so on.
But this is the real world and these are dangerous times. While the 2012 election will primarily be about jobs and the economy, events across the Arab world and escalating tensions between Iran and Israel -- not least because of the about advances in Iran's nuclear weapon program -- make foreign policy and national security expertise critically important in our next president.
If there is anything America has been reminded of by Barack Obama, it's that the presidency is no place for on-the-job training -- and it's even less so when potential nuclear conflict is involved.
Herman Cain gave an interview to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Monday in which his -- and his further discussion with the newspaper's editors on broader foreign policy issues -- sounded like a student trying hard to remember the answers for a test he's been cramming for.
When asked whether he agreed with President Obama on Libya, he said "OK, Libya…" followed by ten seconds of awkward silence and then "President Obama supported the uprising, correct?" A few seconds later: "I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reasons…nope, that's a different one…I've got all this stuff twirling around in my head. Specifically, what are you asking me that I agree or not disagree (sic) with Obama?" It wasn't as bad as Rick Perry's 53 seconds trying to remember the Department of Energy, but it was too close for comfort.
Cain's was only marginally better. He started his response on Iran by saying that the topography of Iran made a military strike against the nation "not a practical, top-tier alternative," but two minutes later said that "stopping Iran may be nearly impossible without direct military intervention..." It was as if he was trying to show how smart he was by showing that he knows there are mountains in Iran. But if Iran needs attacking, can you imagine Benjamin Netanyahu wondering "Should we skip it because there are mountains there?" Cain again reverted to his now-tired theme of "I would get more input." Unfortunately the input seems needed not just before making a hypothetical decision but before being able to adequately answer the newspaper's question. And as a trader, I had to chuckle when Mr. Cain said that "just announcing the [energy independence] plan will cause the price [of oil] to drop by nearly a third."
Cain had a good sound bite ready when asked whether public employees should be allowed to have collective bargaining: "Yes, but not collective hijacking. If they have gotten so much for so many years and it's going to bankrupt the state, I don't think that's good. And it appears in some instances that they really don't care."
But his next statements combined inexperience with a very bad idea. When asked whether he would favor collective bargaining for federal employees, Mr. Cain responded, "They already have it don't they?" One of the newspaper staff in the room corrected him with "No, they don't," to which Cain said, "They have unions." Like Rick Perry's various gaffes, it would have perhaps been excusable had it been a one-time (or even two-time) thing. But it isn't.
Overall, Cain was disturbingly open to collective bargaining for government employees, leaving one to wonder where he would draw the line as to what outcome from collective bargaining would qualify as an "undue burden on the taxpayers." If our bloated federal bureaucracy is not already an undue burden on us, it's hard to imagine what is. And it's impossible to imagine that adding collective bargaining for federal employees would do anything but make the situation exponentially worse.
On other issues, Mr. Cain admitted that his support has dropped among women, bemoaning having been convicted by some in the court of public opinion, and reiterated his intent to "stay on message" as his only way forward. And he got very testy when asked about potential campaign finance violations by his campaign manager, Mark Block, repeatedly telling his questioners to change topics, and looking visibly angry when asked whether he made money from a prior for-profit venture with Mr. Block.
Cain did have a couple of good moments in his interview. During discussion of Paul Ryan's entitlement reform plans, one of his questioners asserted that the reforms would mean that "people would be paying more money for their health care." Cain initially responded "yes," but after a second of reflection changed his answer to "not necessarily…because with the decision of how they spend it being closer to the recipient, they're going to make different decisions on how they spend it." A solid hit on that editor-pitched curve ball.
When asked about his experience (or lack thereof in political terms), Cain came back to his usual answer of surrounding himself with good advisors, but also said "my leadership style is totally different" from President Obama's and that he will be able to appeal to moderates as well as conservatives by only proposing or signing legislation that people can understand.
Back on foreign policy, Mr. Cain was asked about President Bush's aim to promote democracy around the world. His response probably fits well within the American mainstream: "Where there's a democratic movement going on, we will support that. If a country is sitting over here minding its own business, and they're happy with what they have, no we're not going to go in there and try to talk them into democracy."
And finally, when asked about the Supreme Court's decision to review Obamacare, Mr. Cain declined to make a prediction but hoped they would rule that "major portions of it are unconstitutional, especially the mandate."
Overall, too much of Mr. Cain's performance was like someone at a job interview arguing that his intelligence -- which wasn't especially well demonstrated during the interview -- is more important than his experience. Were I hiring, a job applicant whose answers were like Mr. Cain's would not be invited back for a second interview.
No doubt, Herman Cain's performance on the Libya question was the low point of his interview and his answers to some other questions were better, but they were not all good -- and certainly not good enough. Like it or not, this is a job interview where you're judged by your biggest weaknesses, not your average over the entire range of questions -- not that he even averaged a B-minus. And even on the questions where Cain does better than on foreign policy, he comes across too frequently as parroting talking points rather than answering from a true and deep understanding of the issues of the day.
While I appreciate Mr. Cain's efforts to go to school on foreign affairs in his quest for the presidency, he is simply not qualified -- and not going to be by the time of this election -- to hold that office. To be sure, Herman Cain could be a more complete candidate in four years just as Governor Palin is more well-versed in areas of policy and principle than she was when the nation first met her (though that still does not make her a candidate I would favor).
But for the 2012 election, Herman Cain is simply not ready for prime time. At this point, it's not about sexual harassment charges or cigarette-smoking staffers; it's about the fact that experience and knowledge actually do matter and -- despite favorable comparisons to Barack Obama at this time four years ago -- Herman Cain does not yet have enough of either to merit being our president.
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