The Lincoln-Douglas-style debate between Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain Saturday night highlighted Mr. Cain's inexperience. To the casual observer, it may have looked like Mr. Cain held his own. He was charming as ever, and everything he said was conservative. But Mr. Cain spent the night speaking in abstractions, framing every conversation around his pizza business. There's no doubt that, had Speaker Gingrich pressed Mr. Cain on his answers -- e.g. forced him into a corner to get specific as to which department or agency in the federal government would implement Mr. Cain's ideas, or which one was superfluous -- Mr. Cain would not have been able to answer. At one point, Mr. Cain made reference to HR3400, but wasn't sure if that was the right bill; to political junkies like us who actually know whether or not it was HR3400 and who have read it, Speaker Gingrich was the only one of the two who knows the government well enough to know the specifics of what can be cut, what is failing, exactly how it's failing, and how to fix it.
That's not to say that Mr. Cain's heart isn't in the right place. He is clearly a fiscal conservative. I like Mr. Cain, and in fact, the Herman Cain PAC uses a quote of my support for him in its literature. But by accepting Speaker Gingrich's invitation to this style of debate, Mr. Cain opens himself up to being asked to a similar style of debate with President Obama if he's the Republican nominee, and the president isn't likely to be as friendly as Speaker Gingrich was.
If Mr. Cain gets the nomination, the president's campaign will make every effort to highlight all the things Mr. Cain doesn't know about the federal government and about being president. That's not dirty policies; it's just smart campaigning. The president will try to get Mr. Cain to admit that he doesn't know the specifics of how agencies work, of who's running agencies, what the procedures are, etc.... That's not so easy to do when the debate is moderated and the candidates agree to 30-second sound bites, but in a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate, it could be one uncomfortable moment after another, with the president peppering Cain with test questions that the latter couldn't respond to. That's the drawback of nominating "an outsider."
Republican primary voters might be forgiving of such limits in a candidate. Mr. Cain would clearly delegate more than the typical president, and his connections to the Koch brothers are very appealing to those of us who love what the Kochs do around the country to promote fiscal conservatism through entities such as The Heritage Foundation. To many of us, that is preferable to the nomination of someone like Mitt Romney -- someone who would no doubt call the shots as president, but whose shots may not necessarily be the kind that fiscal conservatives, who are terrified of our growing debt, would like to see. But the mainstream media is still in President Obama's court. Hardly a mention is made of the White House's refusal to provide all Solyndra-related materials. Similarly, ACORN- and union-backed mobs in Oakland throw Molotov cocktails while the fact that the president endorses these same mobs is ignored.
That same media is salivating at the prospect of a Sarah Palin/Katie Couric kind of moment they could play over and over again for weeks that would discredit the Republican nominee. Nothing was as responsible for the deflation of Republican enthusiasm in 2008 as the moment when Ms. Couric asked Governor Palin what news publications she read to formulate her political views, and Governor Palin couldn't respond with anything more than a deer in the headlights look. And it wouldn't be just the president who'd be asking Mr. Cain these questions. A presidential nominee has to make the rounds on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, all of which would undoubtedly test Mr. Cain as to his political acumen.
Regardless of how Mr. Cain would react, there's little doubt that hardcore Republicans would still vote for him. But the people who want Mr. Cain as the Republican champion have to ask themselves if independents would feel the same way. To that casual observer who doesn't obsess over politics and votes based on a few moments in general election debates, news clips, and the talk around the water cooler at work, will Mr. Cain's status as the punchline of those who would attack him from the left make him someone who is even less appealing than President Obama, who miraculously still clings to quite a healthy personal approval in polls?