Herman Cain’s Political Ignorance

Conservative columnist Rich Lowry has an interesting piece on Herman Cain’s ignorance about major public policy:

At a meeting with the editors of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Cain was asked whether he agreed with Pres. Barack Obama’s handling of Libya. You would think he had been asked who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, Cain’s joshing description of a prototypical gotcha foreign-policy question. What ensued was the longest five minutes of an editorial-board meeting ever.

Cain paused. Then he asked for a lifeline by trying to confirm with his questioner that President Obama supported the Libyan uprising. He started to say why he disagreed with Obama, but stopped after realizing, “No, that’s a different one.” He hesitated again. “Got all this stuff twirling around in my head,” he explained.

Cain hadn’t been asked about an obscure conflict or one distant in time. We’re not talking the War of Jenkins’s Ear or the Second Peloponnesian War. He seemed to all but have missed that there had recently been a Libyan War that had taxed the capacities of NATO, created an intense conflict with Congress over presidential war powers, teetered on the brink of failure, and divided conservatives….

His typical answer on national-security questions is that he would consult the experts, a thinly disguised dodge. What if the experts are wrong (as they often are) or disagree (as they often do)? Because Cain has no independent knowledge base or bearings, he would be entirely a creature of others on foreign policy.

It’s not as though he’s a wonk on domestic policy, either. He’s tied himself in knots on abortion, contradicted himself on an electrified border fence, and demonstrated an unfamiliarity with the basics of Medicare policy. Even on his signature issue, 9-9-9, he relies on repetition and assertion more than detailed argument.

It’s easy to find examples of Democratic politicians who demonstrate comparably egregious ignorance. But that does not excuse Cain. If you want to be president of the United States, you should have at least a basic knowledge of the issues the office is responsible for.

One can argue that Cain will simply bone up on the issues after taking office. But any such expectation is highly unrealistic. Presidents work under tremendous time pressure, especially early in their tenure, which is when they have the greatest chance of implementing major changes in policy. There is little time for study at that point. Most of the public policy knowledge a president uses in office is knowledge he brought there with him.

Cain’s defenders could also claim that his ignorance is irrelevant because, once in power, he can just rely on the advice of experts. Obviously, every president must rely on advisers to a great extent. But in order to make effective use of those experts, a president needs to have at least a basic understanding of what they’re talking about. That’s especially true in the many cases where experts disagree and the president has to decide whose advice to follow.

Cain’s shortcomings in this respect are reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s troubles in the 2008 election. There is, however, a crucial difference. Palin didn’t know that she was going to be nominated for VP until shortly before it was announced. Before 2008, she had little incentive to study national issues; as governor of Alaska and mayor of Wasilla, she only needed to be familiar with local and state policy, which by all accounts she knew reasonably well. By contrast, Cain has been running for president for many months, and presumably knew that he was going to enter the race months before then. Moreover, he also ran for a Senate seat back in 2004. So he has had far more opportunity than Palin did to study up on the basics of national public policy issues. The fact that he hasn’t chosen to do so is telling.

As in the case of Palin, there is an important difference between ignorance and stupidity. Cain is a successful business executive, and clearly has more than enough intellectual ability to understand the basics of public policy, including Obama’s Libya policy. The problem is not lack of ability, but lack of effort.