Herman Cain often tries to have it both ways on campaign trail

November 18, 2011

Herman Cain’s old employer, Burger King, encourages its customers to “Have it your way.”

On the presidential campaign trail, though, Cain’s slogan could easily be: “Having it both ways.”

While Cain has often been criticized by the media for changing his story, his problem often is that he simply won’t stick with one story or the other and tries to take both positions.

Abortion rights is the best example of this.

When asked by CNN’s Piers Morgan last month whether abortion should be illegal, Cain said he was “pro-life” but that whether to have the procedure was a woman’s choice, the exact same rhetoric often used by pro-abortion rights advocates. Pressed repeatedly over the next couple days, Cain finally said that abortion should be illegal, but stuck by his assertion that it was a woman’s choice (presumably a choice about whether to break the law).

More recently, Cain has straddled the fence on collective bargaining rights. During an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board on Monday, Cain said he favored collective bargaining rights for unions, but that he opposed “collective hijacking” (whatever that means) – a position he repeated during a campaign appearance in Iowa on Tuesday morning.

By Tuesday afternoon, though, Cain’s campaign sent out a statement saying Cain supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) effort to balance the budget in that state and campaigned for his effort to curtail that state’s public workers’ collective bargaining rights.

So while supporting Walker’s effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights, Cain also supports collective bargaining rights themselves. OK.

A few other examples:

* Cain called House Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)Princess Nancy,” in a debate last week. He apologized that night, but then the next day said he was only apologizing “so you all will stop asking me about it, OK?”

* When Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan came under criticism for taxing the poor, Cain described exemptions for low-income individuals. The chief selling point of the plan was its simplicity and fairness, and he even touted the fact that there would be no exemptions. But when Cain announced the exemption for the poor, Cain said it had always been a part of the plan.

* When sexual harassment allegations first surfaced against Cain, his campaign cycled through blaming Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign, Democrats and then racists. Cain for a time backed off the suggestion that Perry was behind the news and then doubled down, blaming him again. Finally, at a press conference responding to accuser Sharon Bialek coming forward, Cain acknowledged he had no evidence about who was behind the allegations.

Of course, to accuse Cain of trying to have it both ways in all of these situations would mean conceding that his responses were in some way planned.

Instead, Cain’s comments often appear haphazard and spontaneous, with the candidate flying by the seat of his pants. Even on some of the main issues of the day, it doesn’t seem that Cain has pinned down exactly where he stands and is totally unprepared for questions about them.

Whether it’s the Palestinian “Right of Return,” the events in Libya, the wet-foot-dry-foot policy for Cuban refugees or even simply abortion rights, Cain doesn’t seem to have invested the study time needed to answer a barrage of media questions.

That may be somewhat forgiveable, insofar as Cain has branded himself an unconventional candidate who doesn’t have all the answers.

The problem for Cain is that, instead of trying to understand the issues better or stick to a firm position, he has often meandered through a series of positions that he apparently hopes won’t offend anyone.

When he began surging in the polls, Cain famously said he wouldn’t entertain gotcha foreign policy questions about the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” But given far more significant and substantive questions, it’s not as easy for Cain to admit ignorance, and instead of doing so, he has stammered through a series of responses.

That’s fine for a while, but it’s starting to catch up to him. And that’s why we’re seeing his campaign get rough with the media and cancel interviews like the one with the all-important New Hampshire Union-Leader editorial board.

Cain simply can’t give consistent answers, and it’s starting to plague his campaign.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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