There’s a reason that people almost never make the jump from the private sector to major elected office. For all the blather about career politicians, politics is a skill, and an incredibly difficult one. The ability to craft one’s message, communicate it with consistency, and avoid blunders is not one that comes easily to most people.
Obviously, it’s easier to jump from the business world to the state legislature, or U.S. Representative. You might even get to the U.S. Senate if you’ve got above-average communication skills and a bit of luck. But the presidency — that’s another animal entirely. Even Rick Perry, who’s a career politician with a decade’s worth of experience as governor of one of America’s largest states, has had trouble making that jump.
Herman Cain has no political experience, and it shows. I’m not saying he’s without charisma (he’s got more than Romney) or that he lacks smarts (he’s sharper than Perry). But he doesn’t have the practiced gift of knowing what to say and when to say it, when to engage and when to punt, and how to punt without sounding like he’s punting.
Take his statements over the past few days on abortion. I don’t think it will surprise anyone that Cain has taken hard anti-choice stands in the past, nor that he considers himself solidly pro-life. But Cain has also taken a strong anti-government stance, and as anyone but the rabidly anti-choice folks know, outlawing abortion would mean a dramatic increase in government power.
Now, a practiced politician knows to keep these two separate. Sure, government is evil, except when it’s controlling women’s uteruses and thwacking the gays — this is the official Republican position. But Cain got cornered by a Piers Morgan question about what he’d do if his granddaughter was raped, and he accidentally spat out the wrong soundbite:
No, it comes down to it’s not the government’s role or anybody else’s role to make that decision. Secondly, if you look at the statistical incidents, you’re not talking about that big a number. So what I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make.
Not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn’t have to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive issue.
Now, I happen to agree with this statement, which is what makes it such a catastrophic blunder. I wish Obama was more pro-choice, and he’s inarguably the most pro-choice president in American history. If I’m agreeing with something a Republican says on abortion, it’s pretty clear they’ve said something that will anger the anti-choice right, and boy howdy, they are furious with Cain.
Needless to say, Cain needed to quickly undo the damage, if possible. And so he issued a new statement clarifying his position. And it’s a very interesting statement, one that, I think, changes this from a gaffe to a Kinsley gaffe1. I’ll explain in a minute, but first, the statement.
Cain attempted to argue that when he said in a CNN interview earlier this week that the decision was ultimately up to the family, what he really meant was that it was up the family as to whether they wanted to break the law.
“I do not think abortion should be legal in this country,” Cain said on Fox today. “Abortion should not be legal. That is clear. But if a family made the decision to break the law, that’s that family’s decision.”
Now, people have argued that this is confusing. But it isn’t. Indeed, this illustrates exactly the way that the vast majority of anti-choice people think.
Abortion doesn’t stop just because it’s outlawed. Everyone, pro-choice or anti-choice, agrees with this. There are True Believers on the anti-choice side who find this abhorrent; I disagree with them, but I respect them at least for being consistent.
But for most anti-choicers — and nearly all of the anti-choice politicians — outlawing abortion is okay precisely because it will continue.
Let me explain. If Herman Cain’s granddaughter was pregnant and didn’t want the kid, the law wouldn’t stop her if she wanted an abortion. Her grandfather is rich. If abortion was outlawed in Georgia tomorrow, her grandfather could, and probably would, buy her a plane ticket to New York, where she could have the procedure done legally. If it was outlawed nationwide, he could buy her airfare to Toronto. If Canada outlawed medical procedures for Americans, Cain could talk to his wealthy friends, inquiring discretely until he found someone with a connection to an ObGyn who would do him a favor. If you’re wealthy, you’ve never had a problem getting an abortion in this country, and you never will.
And so Mitt Romney can work against abortion despite previously having argued that abortion rights are an absolute good, precisely because he knows that his wealth and connections will assure his family access to abortion services. It’s not about outlawing abortions for all. It’s about outlawing them for some — the poor, the young, minorities, the generally disenfranchised. They can be required to bear the children of rapists, because…well, because some loudmouths on the right really want them to have to, and most of the right doesn’t care, because making abortion illegal is like making pot illegal — it only matters if you come from the bad part of town, and don’t have the money to make the problems go away.
That’s why Cain has no problem saying that if his granddaughter was raped, breaking the law would be an option. Because for his family, it would be an option, and one that they would probably avail themselves of. For the political class of the right, outlawing abortion is something that affects other people’s families. That’s why they view abortion rights so cavalierly — because they can buy better rights than you.
1A Kinsley gaffe (named for journalist Michael Kinsley, who coined the phrase) is defined as a gaffe where a politician accidentally tells the truth.