In the modern political climate, it seems that the worst offense a candidate can commit is to be rendered speechless. By now, we are all familiar with Rick Perry's unintentional imitation of Colin Firth in The King's Speech during last week's debate in which the Governor spent a half minute stammering over which bureaucracies he would eliminate. And now Herman Cain is on the hot seat, this time not for what he allegedly said to a former female employee, but what he failed to say to an editorial board about Libya and the time it took him to answer their question.
To be sure, it's important for a president to be able to articulate his views and demonstrate a broad knowledge of the issues facing our country. But in the YouTube era where gaffes become instant viral sensations spread like wildfire by social media, are we becoming hypersensitive to these moments of human fallibility? After all, they're nothing new. Just ask Howard Dean.
I have heard a number of Republican donors and strategists say it's over for Perry and Cain, that they don't have what it takes to be president because they fumbled their words. Maybe they're right. Or maybe, just maybe, we have formulated a process for electing our leaders that borders on the absurd. We parade candidates through more goofy debates than a season's worth of Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes, turning game show style questions into game changers while ignoring the substance of their positions. We hang on every word and measure the evening's performance far more than we measure how their policies have or actually will perform.
I have always referred to President Obama as the first American Idol president, an inexperienced half-term senator with a paper-thin resume elected by a generation conditioned to text in their vote for whoever puts on the best show. Experience and achievement don't matter to this crowd. It's all about the moment. Team Obama gave us plenty of those made-for-TV moments during the 2008 campaign. It hasn't translated to a competent presidency or a prosperous four years for America.
Herman Cain and Rick Perry have more executive experience than every other candidate in the field with the exception of Mitt Romney. They have demonstrated leadership and proven results that others only wish they could emulate. But unlike Romney, they haven't mastered the showmanship we demand to be fooled by. We have told our candidates that words matter more than actions or accomplishments. And in the Age of Obama, empty words matter most of all, certainly more than empty silences.
It's a strange way to pick a president, but at least it boosts cable news ratings.