First we had Rick Perry’s “Third Department of Doom” lockup. Then, in the wake of last Saturday night’s foreign policy debate, Herman Cain sat down for a round-table shootout with the editors of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and ran into a bit of brain freeze while discussing Libya:
The Cain campaign pointed out that he was answering half an hour of tough questions after only four hours of sleep. That seems like a reasonable explanation, since after his momentary confusion has passed, Cain’s answer on Libya was fair enough: he’s not totally opposed to the idea of intervening against Qaddafi, but thinks the situation should have been studied more carefully, particularly the character of the Libyan opposition. Here’s how CBS News transcribed his full answer on Libya:
“I didn’t – nope. I didn’t – I said I would have done a better job of assessing the situation relative to the opposition first before I made decisions about what we would do,” he said.
Cain then said he wasn’t “criticizing” Mr. Obama, but he is “just saying I just don’t think enough was done relative to assessing the opposition before everything, you know, exploded. That’s what I’m saying.”
“I’m a much more deliberate decision maker,” he adds. “It’s a point that I keep coming back to. Some people want to say, well as president you’re supposed to know everything. No you don’t. I believe in having all of the information, as much of it as I possibly can, rather than making a decision or making a statement about whether I totally agreed or didn’t agree when I wasn’t privy to the entire situation. There might be some things there that might have caused me to feel differently. So I’m not trying to hedge on questions. It’s just that that’s my nature as a businessman. I need to know the facts as much as possible.”
When the interviewer says he isn’t clear on Cain’s criticism, he reiterates that he is discussing questions about the opposition to Qaddafi, saying considerations like their ability to govern had to be taken into account. Asked if he was saying if the opposition was not up to certain standards he would not have gotten as involved as Mr. Obama, Cain responded, “It would depend upon which part they didn’t have.”
“See what I’m saying is it’s not a clear yes/no answer because all of those things I think should have been assessed. That’s what I’m saying,” he said.
You can criticize Cain for delivering this critique in a rather mushy manner – it’s painfully obvious the kind of research he wanted on the Libyan opposition was not done, and Cain could usefully point out that he wouldn’t be phoning in attack orders from Brazil without consulting Congress first, since consultation is a major element of Cain’s style. But it’s obvious that Cain does have a position on Libya, and his momentary confusion is more readily explained by fatigue than witlessness.
It is nevertheless unsurprising that gaffes like Perry’s and Cain’s will do some damage, because they’re certain to get a lot of play in the media. Perry’s bad moment came in front of a huge national audience, in the middle of a talking point he brought up, regarding a matter that is crucial to his economic recovery plan. Cain’s never going to be known as a master of foreign policy, and never claimed to be one, so his Libyan Brain Lock probably won’t hurt him as much as Perry’s Third Department of Doom.
In fact, Cain’s general attitude toward foreign policy issues as incurable pains in the posterior, which he’ll try to manage with America’s best interests in mind while focusing on more crucial domestic issues, is a pretty good fit with the way most voters feel. While I personally believe we ought to be a bit more interested in various overseas issues, which are likely to have a deep impact on us in the months and years ahead, I can see a lot of people listening to Cain and thinking, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’d say, if I was up there on stage.”
Whose idea was it to plop a sleep-deprived Cain in front of not-exactly-friendly editors and allow him to be hammered, on camera, with questions about his weakest subjects? Why, none other than Mark Block, the Smoking Man – the same genius who didn’t need any help from Google to invent a blood relationship between one of Cain’s sexual-harassment accusers and a Politico reporter, based entirely on their similar last names.
Both Perry and Cain have used humor to deal with their campaign stumbles. Perry’s “I really stepped in it” honesty and self-deprecating Letterman Top Ten humor were charming, while Cain is wacky and jovial as ever. The Journal-Sentinel, desperately blowing on the guttering flame of their big scoop and trying to nurse it into a “firestorm,” was severely disappointed to discover Cain remains in high spirits:
The video was posted by early afternoon on the newspaper’s website – as the Journal Sentinel now routinely does when its editorial board talks to politicians.
By that time, the Cain bus had embarked from a fundraiser at the Milwaukee Athletic Club toward Lambeau Field about 120 miles away.
Aboard were Cain, a handful of staff members, four Wisconsin supporters – Cain called them “EBCs” for “Early Believers in Cain” – and a reporter.
It was almost as if the soon-to-be-famous Libya moment had never occurred. Cain was at ease and holding court.
“We have a lot of fun on the bus,” he said of the vehicle whose exterior bears a giant portrait of his grinning face.
The Journal-Sentinel’s man on the Fun Bus, Craig Gilbert, uses the word “firestorm” repeatedly during his report, and seems incredulous that the Cain campaign is riding around in a bus instead of a hearse.
Asked on the bus about the dramatic reaction to the Libya clip, Cain said:
“I paused to make sure I didn’t say something wrong. Fact of the matter is, I didn’t. I didn’t say anything wrong . . . but the fact I didn’t answer immediately – I’m going to be honest with you, that is silly. That is silly!”
He went on:
“I call it flyspecking every word, every phrase, and now they are flyspecking my pauses, but I guess since they can’t legitimately attack my ideas, they will attack words and pauses. I’m kind of flattered that my pauses are so important, that somebody wants to make a story out of it.”
“Now when you go to PC school you don’t say what I just said. Since I didn’t go to PC school, you say what I just said.”
Those “PC school” degrees are not optional in the media’s opinion… and if you have one, you can get away with just about anything. Consider the very different treatment afforded to President Barack Obama, a human gaffe machine who long ago left Dan Quayle standing in awe. The media generally tries not to report his more astounding slip-ups, and absolutely never connects them into a narrative.
If Obama were a Republican, late-night comedians would fill their routines with jokes about an obviously in-over-his-head man who arrived in the White House to discover his life of effortless drift through corrupt universities and even more corrupt Chicago politics had left him ill-prepared for the most important job in the world. There would be endless skits about how switching off his teleprompter leaves him virtually helpless.
Instead, Obama’s court sycophants at the major networks will throw themselves on top of an open microphone as if it were a live grenade, to protect the President from gaffes with global implications, and it’s up to the real journalists at networks like Fox News to report on his brain freezes. Here’s a new one, courtesy of Monica Crowley:
Over the years, most effective conservatives have been subjected to withering and unfair criticism that they were dummies, that they lacked the intellectual gravitas of, say, an Al Gore, a John Kerry or a Barack Obama. Obama, in particular, was held up as an example of an extraordinarily brilliant and agile mind: smart, educated, contemplative, deliberative and elegant.
Well. To take just the most recent example of his less-than-superhuman mind, here’s a quote from him today from his press conference in Australia:
“With respect to Europe, I’m deeply concerned, have been deeply concerned, I suspect we’ll be deeply concerned tomorrow and next week and the week after that. Until we put in place a concrete plan and structure that sends a clear signal to the markets that Europe is standing behind the euro and will do what it takes, we’re going to continue to see the kinds of turmoil that we saw in the markets today — or was it yesterday? I’m trying to figure out what — what time zone I’m in here.”
How about it, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel? Does this qualify as a “firestorm” event? The President of the United States just coughed up a bunch of meaningless white noise that makes it clear he has no idea what he’s talking about, and then admitted he doesn’t know what day it is. Is that just a funny little moment that doesn’t tell us anything about Obama’s mental acuity? Or does it fit neatly into a “narrative” filled with three years of unmitigated failure, and dozens of downright stupid utterances?
Besides their political agreement with the President, and their personal loyalty to him, another reason the media never hammers Obama for his brain freezes is that he talks during them, and most journalists are very easy to manipulate that way. They’re not discerning listeners, especially not when they’re transcribing the wisdom of someone they like. Obama is like a grade-school student who doesn’t understand the subject matter, but is very good at gaming the tests. As long as he fills his mental pauses with fluff like “as I have always said,” “let me be clear,” and “deeply concerned,” the press is happy to continue describing him as a genius. Reporters sleepwalk through more press conferences than Rick Perry and Herman Cain put together.