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Cain and the Importance of Curiosity

The key word in the headline of Jonathan’s post on Herman Cain’s evident disinterest in foreign policy is “proudly.” While it’s true that foreign policy will likely stay on the back burner for the coming election, it’s also true that Cain’s deficit on this issue would be easily remedied. The last three presidents (including President Obama) all possessed a basic but passable grasp of foreign affairs when they ran for their first terms. Cain doesn’t have that knowledge base yet and hasn’t shown any interest in acquiring it.

It’s instructive to remember that President Obama’s supporters in the foreign policy community resembled his other supporters—they really liked the idea of him, but even his admirers were unable to explain what Obama actually knew about the world aside from the fact that he would “represent” something different about the way the world looked at America. To be sure, Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war represented a tangible break from the Democratic party, which had been making the case for regime change in Iraq for a decade before the war. But the specifics were still vague, even to those close to him. This is the relevant paragraph from James Traub’s glowing New York Times Magazine profile of Obama in November 2007:

The first of the Clinton people to notice this rising political star was Anthony Lake, national security adviser in Bill Clinton’s first term. Lake says that he was introduced to Obama in 2002 when the latter had just begun considering a run for a Senate seat. Impressed, he began contributing ideas. When Obama came to Washington as a senator and joined the Foreign Relations Committee, Lake continued to work with him on occasion. Like others, Lake was impressed not so much by Obama’s policy prescriptions as by his temperament and intellectual habits. “He has,” Lake says, “the kind of mind that works its way through complexities by listening and giving some edge of legitimacy to various points of view before he comes down on his, and that point of view embraces complexity.”

Here is President Clinton’s national security adviser throwing his support to a first-term senator–whose policy ideas Lake was not impressed by–because he considered Obama a thoughtful listener. That this was not an outrageous admission is testament to how surmountable Cain’s foreign policy weakness is–especially if he is willing to merely express a necessary curiosity in these subjects.

When economic concerns take center stage in a presidential election, a foreign policy novice like Bill Clinton can defeat someone like George H.W. Bush by 200 electoral votes. It’s not a terribly high threshold to clear, but Herman Cain isn’t there yet.



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