Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prince Herman

The GOP debate last night? Well, we were treated to one of the all-time great debate moments, when Rick Perry had the worst brain freeze in televised debate history. You don't need to come here to read about that (James Fallows has the video, and the other worst-ever debate moments).

My recap at Plum Line, however, was focused on Herman Cain, who in my view was even worse. He's always been a farce, of course. But his refusal to even pretend to learn the basics about how to talk about public policy, along with his Limbaugh-lite insulting dismissal of the former Speaker as "Princess Nancy," really got to me tonight while I was watching it. And given Perry, plus that frequent Plain Blog target Newt Gingrich was giving his own top-level snake oil performance, it really took something for Cain to wind up my Loser of the Night.

How bad? I didn't put all the details into my post last night. Let's see...

He showed (transcript here) that either he knows virtually nothing about the world and the economy, or else he’s committed to pretending that he doesn’t know. From the very first answer, in which he did not plausibly demonstrate that he had even ever heard of Italy (pizza notwithstanding), Cain was a disaster. Oh, he’s not going to forget his talking point – singular, in his case – the way that Perry does, and I have nothing at all against a candidate who can answer the question he wants instead of the question he’s asked, but Cain has nothing at all going on. Nothing. Hey, Herman Cain, what’s wrong with Dodd/Frank, which you raise constantly? “Dodd and Frank.” Cute line, but it only works if you have something – anything – substantive to go with it, and Cain just doesn’t have it.

Or this: Cain entirely ducked the question about Italy at the beginning of the debate, but then repeatedly said that what business needed was “certainty” that his famous tax code could provide. Outside of the preposterous notion that trying to overhaul the entire tax code could provide business with any certainty at all (when obviously it does the exact opposite), Cain might have noticed that the stock market was hit hard today thanks to, yes, Italy. So, how is 9-9-9 going to help that one?

Or for that matter, when pressed about whether it was okay for government to turn to overseas companies as California did to rebuild the Bay Bridge, it apparently didn’t occur to Cain that there are such things as foreign companies (that is, Chinese companies are not taking their jobs “overseas” because of the US tax code; they’re Chinese companies!).

Cheap shot interlude: you know who else can't remember all of his bullet points? Herman Cain, apparently. 9-9-9, he tells us, satisfies five criteria, which as I count are: simple, transparent, fair, and boosting the economy.  Maybe I'm not counting right. On the plus side, I suppose, Cain's answer when directly asked about 9-9-9 was easily his most substantive effort of the night. Which isn't saying much; it consisted entirely of listing those criteria and claiming his plan would achieve them. Which, you know, isn't actually very substantive.

Back to his appalling lack of knowledge:

Asked what he would do about Fannie and Freddie, Cain's answer wasn't just that the way he would deal with them is to pass 9-9-9; it was that it is apparently wrong to deal with anything until first the tax code is fixed as he believes it should be: "You don't start solving a problem right in the middle of it. So we've got to do that first." Do I need to explain why this is nonsense? Does Cain have any sense of how long it takes to pass a bill? Does he expect the world to stop and wait until his tax code is passed?

And: to his sort of credit, he actually had an answer on how to replace ACA after repeal; he likes HR 3000, although he didn't say why or provide any details. Still, actually, I'll score this one as a substantive answer, although this is the one that was marred by "Princess Nancy." And just about as minimally substantive as you can get, remembering a bill number instead of being able to remember actual talking points about policy.

I have to go back to his Dodd/Frank answer. Why, outside of that the odious Chris Dodd and Barney Frank were involved, should we repeal that legislation? Because "it doesn't provide oversight for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And we all agree that that was a catalyst for the meltdown in 2008." Now, even if we were to grant the absolutely wrong assertion that Fannie and Freddie were the "catalyst" for the financial crisis...he's still not making any sense. Repeal Dodd/Frank because of the things it doesn't deal with? Huh?

That's it. Nothing else. No substance, at all. No evidence from this debate that he knows, well, anything at all about anything.

Remember, I'm not going to be upset at a politician for not answering the question asked, or for message discipline; to the contrary, I think it's a good and useful skill. But doesn't even do that well, since his transitions wind up being nonsense, too.

No, seriously. I'll call Newt Gingrich a fraud because I think he massively oversells his "ideas", which are often just buzzwords, but Newt certainly is well informed about the world. Romney, of course, can speak about policy and substance. Rick Perry can barely spit out a sentence, but if you listen he'll occasionally wander into substance (see for example his answer on education) and you can tell that he is familiar with the way people talk about these issues, and (perhaps) knows more than he can manage to say. Santorum has a firm and apparently complete grasp of standard conservative boilerplate -- indeed, he's able to recognize when other candidates deviate from it and call them out on it. Even Michele Bachmann may essentially live in a fantasy world, policy-wise, but she does really know her way around that fantasy world.

Cain doesn't come close to meeting that very, very, low standard. He's an insult to Republican voters, to conservatives -- and they are insulting themselves if they don't laugh him off the stage.


  1. Romeny-Cain 2012!

    Could a black VP candidate double (or triple) the African American vote from 2008?

    Would Cain be willing to go into the depths and target the African-American population? Is he discplined enough?

    Doesn't seem as badly informed, as say, Ross Perot.

  2. Romney-Cain? Evidence, like McCain's chose of Palin, of lack of judgment.

  3. Cain's candidacy is an ego trip. JB, you are exactly right to be pointing out how ignorant he is about so many issues. Like Palin before him, he's not studying up either. I have no idea why he thinks he's presidential material other than a pathological belief in his own greatness. That he still has so many supporters is a terrible reflection on the Republican party.

  4. I've actually been really irritated and upset by how much less grief he's getting than Palin did. You'd think a Presidential candidate who knows less than nothing about anything at all and has zero relevant experience would be hit harder than a VP candidate who knows very little about national and international issues and has very little relevant experience. Maybe it's because no journalists have ever taken him seriously whereas Palin had a few impressive days after her introduction. Maybe because it's the primaries and no one's paying attention, though I don't think journalists are otherwise conceding that. Maybe because people think it's okay to call a lower-class white person names -- like "redneck" and "white trash" and "Caribou Barbie" -- whose equivalents for black people they realize would be unacceptable. Maybe because he's a Businessman (TM). Maybe because it's okay to interrupt women and pat them on the head. Whatever the reason, it sucks.

    Also, can people stop referring to sexual harassment as a "sex scandal" and to sexual assault as "sexual harrassment?" God.

    Er ... < /rant>

  5. Cain and to a somewhat lesser extent the entirety of the field is a simulacrum of collective auto-decapitation. That may read as bizarre, but the underlying ideology has deep roots in American political culture, all the way back to radical Whiggism and then Anti-Federalism. The merely alternatively insane Ron Paul expresses the same impulse when he refers to the President's use of executive orders as "dictatorship." If you hate the federal government or if your opposition to "government intervention" reduces to the same thing, Washington DC as Babylon or Rome, then why not support a vacuous creep for Emperor, to paralyze or perhaps to sabotage the imperial structure from the inside? That no one, even Cain, more than pretends that he has a chance, makes the gesture utterly safe: In your mind, as a conservative revolutionary, you may know that electing a predatious buffoon isn't the best way of going about your Tea Party Leninist worse-the-betterism, but that's not really what this is about: In the minds of most cons, to the extent that their reason is engaged, Herman Cain is just a stink bomb flung in the general direction of the rigged neo-liberal game that's ruining/already ruined this country etc. They know or strongly suspect by now that their betters will foist a Romney on them. They haven't yet, for the most part, confronted the fact that their party and their movement doesn't produce candidates like these, or fail to produce better ones, by chance.

  6. Well, so they -- conservatives, Republicans, whoever constitutes the primary electorate -- are pointedly not laughing him off the stage. Indeed, many have been finding creative new ways to defend him over the last couple weeks, such that pre-existing common sense about how seriously accusations of sexual assault should be taken has been revised with surprisingly little ambivalence. His polling -- although that's unreliable at this point -- hasn't changed all that much.

    Has the extent to which the primary electorate indulges craziness in its candidates changed? Or is that merely an illusion of our short-term memory? (Perot after all ended up with, like, 20% of the presidential vote.)

    As you imply at the end, the bigger story of last night wasn't some newly laughable and appalling behavior by Cain (it was par for the course for him). But rather, the continuing support many Republicans have for him from the electorate to the audience to pundits. There's been a slight uptick in misgivings, but surprisingly slight!

  7. Great post, I totally agree about Cain's flaws and, well, there's really nothing clever to add about Perry's flub-for-the-ages. I'm a little surprised there hasn't been more hand-wringing over Bachmann's batshit insane tax/Happy Meal analogy.

    Maybe its because we all know Bachmann is finished. To the extent that Bachmann has occupied a space similar to Palin, at least (!) Palin ghost-wrote some opeds about the Fed that were reasonably defensible as articulations of conservative philosophy. Considering that Bachmann's example was pre-packaged, a thoroughly strategerized attempt at a Hail Mary pass before Iowa, the Happy Meal thing was the jawdropper of the night for me.

    I won't even mention FICA, you've all been there before, that those who pay no federal income tax still pay 7.65% into SS/Medicare (though I did calculate that $10 of SS/Medicare is paid for in just over 18 hours of work for a minimum wage employee. But I digress.) I'll ignore that because the Bachmannites may want to turf SS anyway. Let's also ignore sales and gas taxes, since those don't count anyway.

    No...if Bachmann really was preparing a planned takeout for the irritated "53%ers" (or are they "47%ers"? I can never remember), was the mission really accomplished with $10?. A fucking sawbuck is enough to mollify that crowd? Is that the most wolf-face insane thing anyone has ever said on a public stage?.

    If your answer is no, remember: that's a pre-fab answer from Bachmann. This isn't Perry or Paul, just a little daft. She meant to do that.

    Damn, the Republicans are nothing but a band of misfits and Mitt Romney, who come to think of it, is a misfit in an entirely separate way.

  8. "Could a black VP candidate double (or triple) the African American vote from 2008?"

    ...No. This is the exact same absurd logic that led Republicans to choose Palin, because they seemed to legitimately think that some subset of Hillary supporters were really just looking for somebody with lady bits to vote for, regardless of ideology.

  9. @Adam

    Totally agreed. Also, it's different than 2008 in the sense that we already elected America's first black president, and Cain wouldn't be making history--he'd just be the next black president, unseating the first one. There simply is no reason why black Democrats would want to defect to Cain, even if you do accept the questionable premise that blacks will always choose one of their own. They wouldn't be choosing a black candidate over a white candidate, they'd be choosing between two black candidates, one a right-wing loon and the other America's first black president.

  10. CSH:

    A fucking sawbuck is enough to mollify that crowd?

    Why not?

    Btw the ten bucks would be on top of ending EITC.

  11. Continuing my Anglophilia theme of the week, I think Cain is an excellent argument for the virtues of parliamentary systems. My British friends used to complain about what a dunce John Major was, how he was embarrasingly inarticulate, etc. Maybe by their standards, but compared to someone like Cain, he looks like Disraeli or Churchill. In systems where you move up through party ranks, you simply can't reach high positions of leadership without having been immersed in public policymaking for some time, and without winning over a significant bloc of your fellow policymakers. A Cain premiership is a literal impossibility, whereas a Cain presidency is merely an unlikelihood. That is dangerous.

    Also, CSH: Bachmann was actually making a liberal- (or at least communitarian-) sounding argument about shared sacrifice: "I have everyone paying something because everyone benefits by this magnificent country." And pegging the low-end contribution at the price of two Happy Meals suggests that she favors some kind of progressivity, with low-income taxpayers making essentially just token payments. It's like she's traveled so far right that the Moebius strip has brought her back in from the left -- if she were still polling well, the other candidates would be attacking her for her plan to "raise taxes on working families" and the like. The craziness is that she's not only, as you say, wrong about who currently pays, but that she came up with this plan as some weirdly bass-ackwards way of defending the wealthy. It's like we're seeing her thought process in real time: A couple of debates ago she was saying that no one should pay taxes at all, then she conceded that we need taxes, but she doesn't want to raise them where they should be raised so she's drawn the logical conclusion and called for taxing the poor.

    So, call it a Happy Meal, call it a dog's breakfast, in a weird way it's an expression of principle. As, arguably, is Cain's refusal to give a crap about public policy, which is really just the logical conclusion to be drawn if you start from Reagan's premise that "government is the problem." I'm just surprised it took the GOP 30 years to get there.

  12. Jeff, I certainly agree that a communitarian-type case can be made for everyone to chip in a Happy Meal or some similarly familiar small token. I also recognize that a reasonable argument can be made that the middle-class and poor pay an insufficient share of taxes, given their consumption, though that argument requires one to set aside the regressive nature of consumption or FICA taxes. In any event, its not that Bachmann's argument, per se, was crazy.

    Its that someone in her role is way out of her mind for thinking that the Happy Meal meme was a good way to jump back into the race's consciousness. Maybe she thinks she can fly in the face of conventional party ideology, and any pushback will be prayed away by her big boy husband. Nuts.

    In fact, because the Happy Meal thing was a prefabricated set piece, its as if Michele and Team Bachmann believes that the "47%ers" are upset that the other 53 don't participate in the experience of paying taxes.

    Not that the alleged non-payment for the 53% is a proxy for a larger point, that the poor and middle class don't carry enough weight for what they consume, no, its as if Team Bachmann interpreted the 47% as saying that there's something cool and clubby about being a taxpayer - so here's a great idea! Throw in a couple of Happy Meals and all will be well.

    Team Bachmann might be in competition for the title of stupidest people in the history of any level...

  13. CSH, no argument there. I put it down to a weird adherence to principle simply because it's unbelievable as political strategy. The only other explanation would be that it's something the voice in her head told her to say, and that the voice in question is Ronald McDonald's.

  14. Yessir, for a guy who don't give no play to candidates who obviously have no chance of winning... you're certainly devoting endless bandwidth to the chanceless Cain, Mr. Bernstein. ;-)


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