Herman Cain, whose reign atop the tottering Republican pyramid may prove to be as ephemeral as the TV life span of the faux-trendy Playboy Club, demonstrated yet again yesterday – this time, on Meet The Press – that a career built on burgers and pizza is no preparation for the presidency.
I won’t dwell long on his predictable domestic policy pratfalls. Suffice it to say that he was incoherent about a key flaw in his “9-9-9” plan, the fact that his regressive national sales tax would be slapped on top of all the existing state sales taxes. Cain’s defense went something like this: “Under the current tax code, state taxes are there if they have it. If they don’t have state taxes, they don’t have it. It has nothing to do with this replacement structure for the federal tax code” – to which host David Gregory sagely said, “But that doesn’t make any sense.”And despite the fact that Cain’s plan would lower the tax burden for the rich at a time when a landslide percentage of Americans want the rich to pay more, Cain somehow insisted (without citing a shred of polling evidence, because none exists) that “the American people are embracing” his plan, that “there is a huge amount of public support for 9-9-9.”But that was all foreplay. The best stuff surfaced after the interview’s midpoint, when Gregory announced: “Let’s talk about foreign policy.”Uh oh.There once was a time when Republicans prided themselves for being tough and knowledgeable on matters of foreign policy. This was a signature aspect of the party brand, dating back to the dawn of the Cold War. So consider it somewhat stupefying that the ’12 Republican primary electorate has currently awarded front-runner status to a guy whose dearth of knowledge on this front makes Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes scholar in international relations.For instance, when Cain was asked his opinion of the Iranian assassination plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, he said: “I, as a candidate, don’t have all of the information, so, at this point, I can’t say how I would respond.” At first glance, that might sound like a sensible response. The problem is, that’s his response to foreign policy developments in general. As he insisted during a May debate, when asked about the war in Afghanistan, “I’m not privy to a lot of confidential in formation. At this point, I don’t know all the facts.” And, most importantly, as he wrote in his new book, the one he’s currently touting nationwide, “I’m not trying to escape the broader issues, but I think a president should be briefed on classified intelligence about America’s relationships before offering opinions. The public doesn’t know the answers to those (foreign policy) questions, and neither do I.”But any candidate with an ounce of foreign policy expertise would at least be able to articulate his principles and priorities, with respect to those broader issues. Cain has merely concocted a blanket excuse for saying nothing. And no wonder; he recently learned his lesson when he tried to say something. During an interview last spring on Fox News, he tried to get specific about the Middle East – and wound up demonstrating, yet again, that he’s more suited to discussing the wholesale price of anchovies. When asked by Fox News to opine on the issue of Palestinian right of return, Cain sat there looking flummoxed, before finally insisting that the Palestinians “should have a right to come back if that is a decision that Israel wants to make.” He then said of the Israelis, “I don’t think they have a problem with people returning.” Wrong! The right-wing Israeli government, which is very popular among right-wing Republicans, most certainly does have a problem with Palestinians returning to the land that now belongs to Israel. Within hours of the Fox show, Cain got himself correct, saying that of course the Israelis oppose right of return.Anyway, on Meet The Press yesterday, the fun part came Gregory asked Cain: “Would you describe yourself as a neoconservative?”Cain: “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘neoconservative’…”Gregory: “But you’re familiar with the neoconservative movement?”Cain: “I’m not familiar with the neoconservative movement.”Wow. Let’s pause for a moment to process Cain’s response. Here we have a guy who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, a guy who is actually leading the pack in the latest polls…and yet, by his own admission, he is ignorant of the movement that has long been influencing and driving Republican foreign policy. The neoconservatives, known for their muscular support for exporting democracy, have been vocal since the 1970s; they reached their apogee of influence during the early George W. Bush years, when they successfully lobbied (most notably, from within the administration) for an invasion of Iraq. And Cain doesn’t even know who they are?He does like what they did, however. He said yesterday, “I don’t think the war in Iraq was a mistake.” Moreover, he said he doesn’t want to draw down the remaining American troops “and basically leave that country open to attacks by Iran.” Actually, it was the neoconservative-driven U.S. invasion of Iraq (and the subsequent destabilization of Iraq) that strengthened rival Iran in the first place. The war emboldened the long-downtrodden Iraqi Shiites, with whom Shiite Iran made common cause – but let’s not even go there. That’s a nuance far outside of Cain’s sphere of expertise.Anyway, Cain did insist yesterday that his foreign policy principles are clear – “an extension of the Reagan philosophy…We need to clearly define who are friends are, clearly define who our enemies are.” Actually, Ronald Reagan was most effective when he confounded many of his friends by reaching out to our prime enemy, the Soviet Union, in order to negotiate arms reductions. For that, he took a lot of abuse from the Republican right. But it’s safe to assume that if Cain has never heard of the neoconservative movement, he surely isn’t up to speed on what Reagan did either.Cain explained that he’ll run our national security in a wise manner because “I’m also going to bring in people who understand, understand defining the right problem, knowing how to put – surround yourself with good people, then putting together the right plans…” That’s all boilerplate stuff, although maybe these “good people” could school him on what to say about the immigration issue. He said the other night in Tennessee that we should build an electrified border fence that would kill the people who try to surmount it (an update on his recent idea of building a moat on the border and filling it with alligators). When asked about the electrification proposal yesterday, he replied, “That was a joke, OK?”I assume so. But taking a vow of silence, while occasionally voicing ignorance, on virtually all serious international issues – that’s no laughing matter. And it strains credulity to believe that a Republican lacking even the most basic expertise on traditional Republican policy turf can stay long at the top of the heap.
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