Pundits and observers have dubbed businessman Herman Cain the “Mike Huckabee” of the 2012 presidential cycle.
Their reasoning: He’s a Southerner, an outsider, a talk show host, an underdog and a guy who’s caught unexpected fire in Iowa.
There’s no greater chasm between the two candidates than their political experience. Huckabee was a successful two-term governor of Arkansas. Cain has never held elective office.
That doesn’t necessarily pose a problem for Cain’s chances in the primary. After all, GOP primary voters look famously askance at political experience right about now. But it obscures the fact that Huckabee and Cain are two very different kinds of outsider.
Cain’s experience comes from the private sector, where he was a successful businessman, turning Godfather’s Pizza into a profitable enterprise as CEO. Huckabee’s executive experience comes from serving two terms as governor of Arkansas. To many, Cain’s executive experience is as valuable as Huckabee’s.
But political experience does count for something, and Cain’s lack of it has already hurt him badly on the trail. His most obvious struggles have been on foreign policy, where he’s made gaffes befitting someone who’s never held office.
During an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he admitted as much, launching into a confession that might have sunk other candidates: “I’m working real hard on understanding heads of state, on other countries around the world, being able to pronounce their names properly.”
The former talk show host’s excuse? “[Foreign policy] is an area that I have not focused on because when I was doing my radio show, foreign affairs didn’t come up that often in terms of what my listeners wanted.”
That’s the kind of experience that anyone, no matter how leery they are of career politicians, might question.
And the gulf between Huckabee and Cain shows up in another particularly critical foreign-affairs issue in the GOP primary — the Israel/Palestine relationship. In February, the former governor made his 15th trip to the Holy Land, where he’s formed close ties with key political figures. On that trip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no greater friend to Israel than Huckabee — an international courtesy, no doubt, but still a reflection of Huckabee’s vocal support for the state of Israel.
And Huckabee was one of the harshest opponents of President Obama’s policy toward Israel, calling it “unprecedented” and arguing the president was leaving Israel “alone” in the world. He was also a vocal proponent of Jewish settlement and strong opponent of the two-state solution.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at where Cain — the ostensible second coming of Huckabee — stands.
When asked on Fox News what he thought of the Palestinian Right of Return — an absolutely critical facet of the contentious relationship — Cain fumbled about looking for an answer he didn’t find. One day later, he told Fox News host Sean Hannity why he didn’t find it: “I didn’t understand the Right of Return. That came out of left field. And of all the questions that I anticipated him asking me, I didn’t even conceive of him asking me about the Right of Return.”
Huckabee might not be a Southern, more affable Henry Kissinger, but he’s certainly far more comfortable with the international issues a president would have to face than is Cain.
When pundits write about Cain being this cycle’s Huckabee, they throw yet another indignity at Huckabee — one that simply rewrites history. In the current narrative, Cain has a shot of winning Iowa, but not the nomination. To pundits, that’s another point of similarity with Huckabee, who supposedly had limited appeal.
But Huckabee placed second in the 2008 presidential nomination. If critics are so hungry to advance the “Cain is Huckabee” narrative, they’ll have to embrace its electoral implications as well. If Cain is the next Huckabee, then you’re effectively predicting that he’ll finish second in the GOP nomination battle.
Huckabee’s perpetual irritation at the media’s reluctance to assign him a serious place in the conversation is well-known.
And despite the former governor’s decision to bow out of the 2012 race, he continues to suffer at the hands of a media and party establishment that never granted him anything beyond the status of curious political novelty — a pastor who quipped and smiled and won social conservatives. In Cain, they see similarities. What they don’t see is that vast gulf of experience and serious electoral appeal that separates the two.
Huckabee isn’t running for president, but it’s highly questionable to say Cain has picked up his mantle.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.