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.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.