Herman Cain is, in many ways, the perfect Republican candidate for these times. He's a successful businessman, but has no experience in government (which is a good thing). Because he's never held office before, he has no record of compromises or other aberrations from conservative orthodoxy. He's religious (and the right religion to boot.) He has a crowd-pleasing (if deficit-ballooning) tax plan that's as easy to understand and remember as a pizza-chain promotion. He's as folksy and likable as your grandpa. He knows how to fire up an audience. Even Cain's race could benefit him, as it grants Republican voters the opportunity to demonstrate, contrary to what liberals have been claiming for years, how not racist they are. All of this contributes to Cain's ongoing surge in the polls, which now have him in second place. There's no better illustration of Cain's climb to the top tier of candidates than his placement at the center of the debate stage tomorrow night, right next to Mitt Romney, where Rick Perry used to be.
And yet Cain has a glaring weakness that could eventually become a problem for him: Herman Cain has absolutely no clue on foreign policy, and he doesn't seem to want one, either.
Back in May, Fox News's Chris Wallace asked Cain about the Palestinian right of return, one of the biggest issues in the Middle East peace process.
Clearly, Cain had no familiarity with the right of return. He admitted as much to Sean Hannity, telling him, "Chris caught me off guard. I didn’t understand the right of return. That came out of left field. And of all the questions I anticipated him asking me, I didn’t even conceive of him asking me about the right of return. I now know what that is."
Anyone running for president who had thought about how he would handle the Israeli–Palestinian conflict would know what the right of return is. Cain clearly hadn't thought about it. But that was months ago, near the beginning of the campaign season. Maybe Cain deserves a pass. Surely he does take seriously the complex international issues he would have to confront as president.
Or maybe not? Listen to how Cain described his plan for dealing with Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons in his Values Voter Summit speech on Friday:
To sum up, for those of you who can't watch the video: Cain would strengthen our anti-missile defenses and then dare Iran to "make my day" — that is, to launch its nukes at us. Is that how a serious president handles the threat of a nuclear rogue state? Like Harry Callahan?
That same day, Cain was asked by David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network how he'd deal with "gotcha questions" — for example, knowing who the president of Uzbekistan is. Cain's response:
The problem with this answer is not that Cain didn't know who the president of Uzbekistan is. It's how he flaunts how little he cares about the rest of the world. "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan"? What is he, five years old? Foreign-sounding names are hilarious? It's Uzbekistan. It's a country. It's actually a country that's becoming increasingly important to America's efforts in Afghanistan. Can you even imagine what the reaction would have been if Sarah Palin, in 2008, dismissed Uzbekistan as "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan"? She would have been torn to pieces, quite rightly, for being completely unprepared, intellectually and emotionally, for the position of vice-president. Cain wants to be president.
Cain is right to make economic issues his priority. Voters, after all, generally don't care about international issues nearly as much as they care about their next paycheck, and that will be especially true in 2012. But that doesn't mean voters will be okay with putting a foreign-policy ignoramus in charge of our armed forces and international relationships. Ultimately, to win the White House, people have to be able to envision you as their president, and Cain's unserious, disinterested approach to the world beyond our borders isn't very presidential. If he maintains his position near the top of the polls and begins to invite more scrutiny, his inexperience, which makes him so attractive to some people now, could become an Achilles heel.