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Cain’s Knowledge-Deficit Disorder
He is running for president knowing little about major matters of public import.


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Rich Lowry

Poor Rick Perry. His “brain freeze” is indelible, otherwise it would forever be eclipsed by Herman Cain’s more cringe-inducing meanderings on Libya.

At a meeting with the editors of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Cain was asked whether he agreed with Pres. Barack Obama’s handling of Libya. You would think he had been asked who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, Cain’s joshing description of a prototypical gotcha foreign-policy question. What ensued was the longest five minutes of an editorial-board meeting ever.

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Cain paused. Then he asked for a lifeline by trying to confirm with his questioner that President Obama supported the Libyan uprising. He started to say why he disagreed with Obama, but stopped after realizing, “No, that’s a different one.” He hesitated again. “Got all this stuff twirling around in my head,” he explained.

Cain hadn’t been asked about an obscure conflict or one distant in time. We’re not talking the War of Jenkins’s Ear or the Second Peloponnesian War. He seemed to all but have missed that there had recently been a Libyan War that had taxed the capacities of NATO, created an intense conflict with Congress over presidential war powers, teetered on the brink of failure, and divided conservatives. For Cain, Libya was little more than a rumor of war.

In the hierarchy of gaffes, Rick Perry’s was more forgivable than Cain’s. Everyone has lost his train of thought; few of us have run for president knowing little about major matters of public import.

Herman Cain has captured the imagination of Republican voters with his big, booming personality and his 9-9-9 plan. He has an indomitable spirit and an inherent likability that make for a formidable political persona. Prior to the Libya moment, “flustered” and “Herman Cain” rarely appeared in a sentence together. His frequent admonition that America needs to lighten up is welcome in an era of perpetual offense-taking.

But none of these things is a substitute for familiarity with the affairs of the nation he wants to lead. Cain gives every impression of having run for president to showcase his enviable strengths as a communicator, before the gambit got serious when he vaulted to the top of the polls. As the inspiring outsider-businessman, Cain needn’t sound like he’s auditioning for the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. But is it too much to ask that he sound like he reads the newspaper every day?

His typical answer on national-security questions is that he would consult the experts, a thinly disguised dodge. What if the experts are wrong (as they often are) or disagree (as they often do)? Because Cain has no independent knowledge base or bearings, he would be entirely a creature of others on foreign policy.

It’s not as though he’s a wonk on domestic policy, either. He’s tied himself in knots on abortion, contradicted himself on an electrified border fence, and demonstrated an unfamiliarity with the basics of Medicare policy. Even on his signature issue, 9-9-9, he relies on repetition and assertion more than detailed argument.

Cain’s candidacy reflects the ever-lowering bar for running for president. Pat Buchanan was a media figure who ran for president; now some people run for president to become media figures. Cain is such a winsome personality that he gets away with shameless excesses of self-promotion. He refers to himself in the third person more than the notoriously self-referential Bob Dole ever did. The title of his campaign book is This Is Herman Cain! It’s impossible to imagine the great conservative insurgent of 1964 writing a book titled This Is Barry Goldwater!

Republicans tend to be defensive of their own when they are criticized for substantive superficiality. They remember that “they said the same thing about Ronald Reagan.” But Reagan was a two-term governor and repeat presidential candidate who had exhaustively thought through his views. He proved it’s possible to be fearlessly anti-establishment and well informed at the same time. Herman Cain has yet to manage it.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]. © 2011 King Features Syndicate.



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