I guess I have to write this one. My pre-debate post over at Plum Line noted that Herman Cain was going to receive a lot of attention at the Bloomberg/WaPo debate, and that "This isn’t apt to go well." The reviews, however, wound up just fine, ranging from mildly negative to solidly positive (see Sullivan's roundups here and here). So I'm inclined to say that I got it wrong, and need to deal with it.
And yet...as I look at the debate performance, I just can't help thinking that I was basically right. I mean, first of all there's his praise for Alan Greenspan, which is both bizarre on the face of it and, beyond that, a choice that might really cost him support from whatever Paulites are open to voting for him. Then there's the business of secret advisers, which certainly invited plenty of questions and added to the air of Not Ready for Prime Time. And his general defense of 9-9-9 was really just limited to repeating how great it was, over and over again, which beats whatever Rick Perry is doing and perhaps even what Newt or Bachmann are capable of, but still it wasn't exactly impressive.
Which I think gets to what's going on here. It's not that Cain was any good; it's just that everyone else (other than Mitt Romney) is really that bad. Including, for those who attempted to attack him, a real lack of ability to even manage that. After all, Bruce Bartlett did them the favor of giving a roadmap yesterday morning in the Times, beginning with a very obvious question: if 9-9-9 is so great, why is Cain planning to eliminate it when he gets to "Phase 3" of his own tax plan? In other words, part of what went right for Cain is the same thing that's gone right for Mitt Romney, who has somehow managed to get through a half-dozen debates without having to deal with a single effective shot over flip-flopping.
The other part of this is that I think reporters have actually learned something over the course of the year, and most of them don't really need to be reminded (as Kevin Drum does anyway, and it can't hurt) that "Herman Cain is not going to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination." That is, Cain is still being graded on the crank candidate scale rather than on the serious contender scale, and as a crank candidate he's way better than Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes!
But I should have known all of that in advance, along with the point that Cain is more likely to completely melt down the farther the questions stray from tax policy, and he was going to be on relatively safe ground in a debate devoted to the economy. So while I do think that he didn't help himself last night, I think I have to admit that I got this one wrong, and at the very least I should have been a lot more careful about the factors that would affect the reaction to what he did.