Of Herman Cain, Hostages and Ronald Reagan

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You can already sense the air coming out of the Herman Cain balloon–he wasn’t the main attraction last night, and the answers he gives to questions outside him comfort zone lack his trademark humor and flair.  One place where Cain seems way, way out of his comfort zone is foreign policy. Tuesday night’s debate provided a fine example. One viewer submitted the excellent question of whether the candidates would negotiate to release hostages, as Israel has done by freeing hundreds of Palestinians prisoners in return for the captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Cain said no: “My policy will be we cannot negotiate with terrorists.” But prior to that, he was forced to explain why he told CNN the opposite thing earlier in the day. (“I could see myself doing that,” he said.)

In an interview with Anderson Cooper just after the debate, Cain explained his reversal by saying that he didn’t want to second-guess Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to strike a deal for Shalit’s release, because he couldn’t know all the unspoken factors that went into Netanyahu’s decision. That’s not completely unreasonable–maybe there was, for instance, some added secret component to the deal. (Think of the secret agreement that may have resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis). But this fixation on hidden information has become a strange tic of Cain’s: On issues from Afghanistan to the alleged Iran assassination plot and now the Shalit deal, Cain repeatedly insists on withholding judgment because he hasn’t read all the classified binders. But that seems like quite a cop-out for a presidential candidate. And while national security may have receded to the background in this campaign, I suspect it’s going to dim the enthusiasm of Republican voters for The Hermanator.

Incidentally, after Rick Santorum followed Cain by insisting that America must never, ever, negotiate with terrorists, it took Ron Paul (of course) to point out that the Reagan administration had done just in the Iran-Contra affair. Santorum valiantly tried to exonerate Ronald Reagan by drawing a distinction between dealing with a nation state and dealing with terrorists. “Iran was a sovereign country. It was not a terrorist organization,” said the former Pennsylvania Senator. But the point doesn’t wash: Those hostages had been taken by the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah–not by the government of Iran. Newt Gingrich quickly interjected that Reagan hadn’t known about the arms deal, which may or may not be true. But the point at least served to dispatch the unpleasantness introduced by Paul. For Cain, saving his steadily-eroding credibility on national security won’t be so easy–especially with a former Air Force pilot waiting in the wings to pick up any disenchanted Cain followers.