GOP Debate Debacle: Audience Boos Woman Moderator for Challenging Cain on Sexual Harassment; Perry Brain-Freeze Spells Doom
It was called "Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate," but Wednesday night's CNBC presidential debate in Rochester, Michigan, turned more on questions of memory and misogyny than on the economic matters. On a day that saw the stock market take a 400-point dive, the news made in this debate was that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had a potentially campaign-ending brain freeze at the podium, and that former Americans For Prosperity operative Herman Cain has major issues with women, and Republicans seem to like that about him.
Two Outta Three Ain't Good
Perry's big gaffe came when he sought to make a point about the three government agencies he planned to eliminate, but could only name two. "Commerce, Education, and the -- What's the third one there? Let's see." And then he fumbled around a bit. In a touching moment, one of his colleagues tried to help him out, suggesting the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite bugaboo of Republicans -- at least since the Tea Party ate their brains. (It sounded like Romney, but whoever assisted Perry was off-camera at the time.) "EPA. There you go," Perry said. But when challenged on by CNBC moderator John Harwood on that fact, Perry seemed to lose his nerve.
"No, sir, no, sir," Perry replied. "We are talking about the -- agencies of government. EPA needs to be rebuilt." And then he went back to fumbling through his list, unable to come up with the third agency. " I can't -- sorry," he said. "Oops."
It was hard to watch. (See video, below.) Later in the debate, Perry recalled his target. The third agency on his bureaucratic death row is the Department of Energy, he said.
Perry actually isn't as dumb as he appears at the debate podium. He strikes me as a man who's simply profoundly uncomfortable in settings that take him outside of his own rural, evangelical culture. Watch him deliver a speech at Liberty University, the institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, or at an Iowa dinner, and he's charming. But put him on a debate stand being questioned by a bunch of cosmopolitan smarty-pants, and he's numb with fear. Throw him in front of a bunch of taciturn New Hampshirites, and he can look like a cowpoke who had one too many longneck bottles of Lone Star ("the national beer of Texas").
After the debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minn., shed some rhetorical crocodile tears for her Texas rival in the GOP contest. "We all felt very bad for him," she told a CNBC interviewer.
GOP Crowd Boos Moderator for Sexual HarassmentQuestion; Cain Disparages 'Princess Nancy'
The biggest campaign news of the week was the press conference held by Herman Cain on Tuesday in Arizona to deny allegations of sexual harassment made by women who worked for him during his tenure as president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. (Cain blamed it all on the "Democrat machine.") But when CNBC's Maria Bartiromo deigned to ask Cain whether character issues such as those raised by the allegations would deter him, as a businessman, from hiring a CEO so charged, the audience -- comprising mostly members of the Michigan Republican Party -- booed Bartiromo.
"The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," Cain responded, indignantly... And for every -- one person that comes forward with a false accusation, there are probably -- there are thousands who would say none of that sort of activity ever came from Herman Cain...
"Over the last nine days," Cain continued, "the voters have voted with their dollars, and they are saying they don't care about the character assassination."
The audience applauded with gusto.
Earlier in the week, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom polls show in a virtual tie with Cain for first place, called the allegations against Cain "particularly disturbing." In an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Romney said, "They’re going to have to be addressed seriously...Any time there is an accuser that comes forward with charges of this nature you recognize this is a very serious matter and it should be taken seriously.”
But given the opportunity by Harwood to comment further on Cain's character and the allegations, Romney demurred. He'd clearly taken the temperature of the room. (Perhaps he'll soon change his position on sexual harassment.)
Later in the program, Cain groused about former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's refusal to bring a GOP health-care proposal to the floor. "We didn't hear about it in the previous Congress," Cain said, "because Princess Nancy sent to it committee and it stayed there."
Easy Room; Tough Week
If last week was tough for Herman Cain, this week got a little rougher. During his foray to Washington, D.C., last week Herman Cain arrived in town to face the clamor of two breaking news stories: that of settlements paid, for alleged sexual harassment claims against him, to women who worked for the National Restaurant Association during his tenure as its president, and another about the likelyillegal use of a non-profit to pay for his campaign expenditures. Much of the harassment story remained shrouded in mystery, since the women who were party to the settlements were bound by the terms of their agreements not to talk publicly of their claims against Cain.
This week, the sexual harassment story took off when Sharon Bialek, a former employee at the association's foundation who had not signed an agreement, came forward to tell a similar story, divulging details of an encounter with Cain that she said took place in his car. In his press conference, Cain said he had no memory of Bialek. The Cain campaign set about smearing the woman, dredging up the details of her troubled financial history, when the New York Times published an interview with a woman, Karen Kraushaar, who was actually party to one of the agreements. The National Restaurant Association has since released the women from the gag order that was part of the settlements, and Politico reports that Kraushaar and Bialek are planning a press conference about the allegations.
And despite an explosive report by Dan Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week that a non-profit controlled by Cain's campaign manager, Mark Block, had illegally picked up the tab for private jet travel and iPads for the campaign in apparent violation of tax law, not a single question was asked about the misuse of a tax-exempt organization, which is barred by federal law from electioneering.
And, of course, we expected no questions of Cain about his role as a front-man for Prosperity 101, a workplace program linked to billionaire David Koch that is designed to frighten workers into voting for the Koch anti-labor, anti environmental agenda, or risk losing their jobs. (AlterNet broke that story in June.) Our expectations were fulfilled.
Fannie, Freddie, Blah-Blah, Blah
There were other candidates on the stage, of course: Michele Bachmann; Rep. Ron Paul, Texas; former Sen. Rick Santorum, Penn.; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ga.; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. And the main topic was the economy. But honestly, the candidates, save for Huntsman (who really doesn't matter all that much), were more or less on the same page about most things. So the rest of the debate can pretty much be summed up in a list of Tea Party villains:
Fannie, Freddie, Ben Bernanke, Dodd-Frank, Dodd and Frank, the EPA, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, the Department of Something Bad That Rick Perry Couldn't Remember, Obamacare, and pretty much all of government, which should just roll over and die. Huntsman issued a stern warning about starting a trade war with China, where he most recently served as U.S. ambassador. But no one was listening.
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. She also writes for the AFL-CIO Now blog. Folllow her on Twitter: @addiestan