Cain needs to confound expectations on foreign policy

Cliff Sims Founder and CEO, Yellowhammer Strategies
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A new Gallup poll shows Republicans’ intensely positive views of Herman Cain remain high even as his name recognition continues to rise. Outside of his campaign’s comparatively weak organization and lack of fundraising, he is having an impressive if not surprising run.

Cain, more than any other candidate, has used the recent jam-packed debate schedule to his advantage — and he again performed well during Tuesday’s CNN debate. But the race is now entering a month-long stretch in which there are no nationally televised debates. This poses potential problems for Cain that could stall his momentum.

The organizational structure of the Cain campaign will no doubt be strained trying to keep pace with the other top-tier political machines. But it is the death-by-a-million-paper-cuts tactics of the mainstream media that pose the biggest threat. There will be continued critiquing of Cain’s proposed tax plan and he will need to add fresh ideas to it — but foreign policy is where he is most vulnerable.

In a recent interview with Cain, Wolf Blitzer mentioned the unprecedented prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in return for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists and criminals. Blitzer then asked Cain, “Could you see yourself, as president, authorizing that type of transfer?”

I don’t want to downplay the weight of making that level of decision when lives are on the line, but this is a no-brainer. The United States does not negotiate with terrorists or hostage-takers. Period. Next question. Instead, Cain said, “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 and then the president has to make a judgment call. I could make that call if I had to.”

It was not a huge blunder, but it stuck. Multiple follow-up questions have been asked since then, including both during and after Tuesday’s debate. Cain clarified his position by saying he would not negotiate with terrorists — but the first paper cut had been delivered.

For comedians, the jokes that stick are the ones that touch on a perceived truth that is just below the surface. For politicians, the gaffes that stick are the ones that do exactly the same thing. The reason Cain’s answer raised eyebrows is that it reinforced the growing perception that he is clueless on foreign affairs.

After all, this is not the first time Cain has shown signs of weakness on international issues. He previously said he was opposed to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki before walking that back as well. Cain’s uncertainty on foreign policy is striking when juxtaposed with his supreme confidence on domestic economic policy.

However, this may provide Cain with an opportunity to continue to confound expectations. The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and CNN announced Tuesday that they will be hosting the next debate on November 15 and it will focus entirely on foreign policy.

Many may not recall that there were also concerns with Ronald Reagan’s lack of foreign policy experience during his 1980 presidential campaign. When asked about his approach to the Cold War, Reagan quipped, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose” — not exactly “Kissingeresque.”

But it was that type of statement that showcased Reagan’s deeply ingrained convictions. Reagan stood for a set of ideas and he applied those ideas to each decision he made. Knowing every detail about the United States’ relationship with obscure Eastern European communist states was less important than the approach Reagan brought to problem-solving.

Cain needs to spend as much time as possible with his foreign policy advisers between now and November 15. But even if he does, there is no way he will have a total grasp of every intricate detail of U.S. foreign relations. Luckily, that is not what the American people need from him right now. We need to see that he, like Reagan, has an internal compass that will guide his decision-making on foreign affairs.

If Cain can do that and confound expectations during the upcoming foreign policy debate on November 15, the naysayers will have one more reason to reconsider buying a boarding pass for the Cain Train.

Cliff Sims is the chairman of the Alabama College Republicans and founder of Generation NOW, an organization formed to educate and empower a new generation of leaders. His Twitter handle is @Cliff_Sims.