Herman Cain’s Prisoner Swap, Abortion Gaffes Burst His Campaign Bubble

The perceived lack of knowledge behind his latest boo-boos will sink him—not his ill-advised positions.

It was Ed Koch, of all people, who once told me that a good and savvy politician has a governor in his brain telling him which words to use and which not to use, to weigh their likely impact even as they’re still zooming through the synapses. By “governor,” Koch didn’t mean Mario Cuomo, his contemporary, but a governor switch like in a car engine: something to turn the flow on and shut it off. I say “of all people” because Koch’s sometimes famously malfunctioned. But at least he had one. The Herman Cain model came sans governor.

On his debut Meet the Press appearance Sunday, he was horribly inarticulate trying to defend his indefensible 9-9-9 tax plan. (Joe Biden got in trouble for calling Barack Obama “articulate,” but inarticulate is fine, right?) On Tuesday, with reference to the Israeli-Palestinian deal under which Gilad Shalit was the equal of nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, Cain told CNN that he’d consider a prisoner exchange, if it came to that, involving suspected terrorists being held at Gitmo. At the Tuesday night debate he offered one of his rare truthful utterances, saying he “misspoke.”

The Big Whopper came Wednesday night, when he told Piers Morgan of CNN (Herman: stick to Fox!) that it basically wasn’t a president’s business to advance a position on abortion. That one hasn’t gone down particularly well. Cain again clarified, saying he meant merely that a president “has no constitutional authority” to interject himself into an individual family’s or woman’s decision. An Iowa social-conservative leader huffed, “That is a pro-choice position.” Cain assured the world that he is 100 percent against abortion. One has little doubt that he is, but that’s not something that, in the context of a GOP presidential primary, you want to even have to bother to affirm.

These are all the kinds of moments where that governor comes in awfully handy. You don’t need it so much in the business world. Most of what you say there is behind closed doors, and people, well, they know what you mean, and you’re the boss so they suck up to you anyway, and they still carry the memory of that beautiful bunker shot you made at 16 last Saturday, and the business press in general terms isn’t nearly as aggressive as the political media, especially on these gotcha matters. But the campaign trail media live for the chance to press candidates on verbal inconsistencies, trip them up. Covering campaigns day after day is dolorous tedium, and nothing breaks it up like a chance to paint a candidate into a rhetorical corner. So Cain just clearly doesn’t know how to handle that.

There is another possibility here. Maybe he’s just not that bright. Certainly, he has no reason to have sat around thinking to himself, “Now let’s see, hypothetically, would I trade American soldiers for suspected terrorists?” So I could forgive him and his people for not having done the prep work on the question. But I would think that any reasonably intelligent person, being asked the question he was asked (“could you imagine if you were president” authorizing such a swap) on national television while trying to win votes from the kind of people Cain is trying to win votes from, would have the sense to say no. Cain chirped happily an answer that was both incredibly wrong and comically full of flabby, meaningless verbiage: “I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer, but what I would do is, I would make sure that I got all of the information, I got all of the input, considered all of the options.”

It’s the second part of that sentence that’s the tip-off. That’s the kind of verbal garbage that is emitted by people who are stalling for time and don’t know what they’re talking about. You know: the kind of people who use “with respect to” a lot, and who begin a sentence by saying that Topic X is “both” this and that but then go on to name three qualities. These are signs of a mind that is constantly groping, which is how Cain comes across frequently.

If this is the beginning of the end, I think it will be more for these reasons than his ill-advised positions. A practiced candidate can always walk back a boo-boo. A shot of fake sincerity, a jigger of self-deprecating humor, and you’re home. But I think even conservatives want a president who kinda sorta knows what he’s talking about.