The Many Walkbacks of Herman Cain

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The former Godfather's Pizza CEO has been correcting his own statements a lot lately. The trend dates back to 2003.

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The great thing about Herman Cain is that he's a straight-talker who shoots from the hip. What's wrong with America? Stupid people are ruining it. How to fix the economy? 9-9-9, my friend. What's wrong with politics and media? People need a sense of humor.

Right on.

But whenever one of his zesty hip-shots misses, Cain generally doubles back on himself and has to figure out, on the spot and with the cameras rolling, what it was he meant in the first place. "I think it has created an image of him as not being up to this task," Karl Rove said Monday on Fox News.

Most recently, Cain had to clarify his stance on abortion. When CNN's Piers Morgan asked him about cases of rape and incest, Cain seemed to contradict his "100-percent-pro-life" abortion stance by telling the host:

... 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.

On Friday, in a statement released by his campaign, Cain explained he was only talking about the role of the president.

During last week's CNN debate, Cain corrected something he'd told Wolf Blitzer earlier that day -- that he could see himself authorizing the release of hundreds of Guantanamo Bay prisoners in exchange for a single U.S. solder. Cain made that qualified remark at the end of a discussion about Israel's exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit:

That night, at the CNN-hosted Western Republican Legislative Conference debate in Las Vegas, Cain told moderator Anderson Cooper that he wouldn't negotiate with terrorists:

COOPER: ... Herman Cain, let me ask this to you. A few hours ago you were asked by Wolf Blitzer, if al Qaeda had an American soldier in captivity, and they demanded the release of everyone at Guantanamo Bay, would you release them? And you said, quote: "I can see myself authorizing that kind of a transfer. Can you explain?

CAIN: The rest of the statement was quite simply, you would have to consider the entire situation. But let me say this first, I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists. We have to lay that principle down first.

Now being that you have to look at each individual situation and consider all the facts. The point that I made about this particular situation is that I'm sure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to consider a lot of things before he made that.

So on the surface, I don't think we can say he did the right thing or not. A responsible decision-maker would have considered everything.

COOPER: But you're saying you could -- I mean, in your words, you've said that I could see myself authorizing that kind of a transfer. Isn't that negotiating with, in this case, al Qaeda?

CAIN: I don't recall him saying that it was al Qaeda-related.

COOPER: Yes, he did. He said ...

CAIN: Well, I don't really -- my policy will be we cannot negotiate with terrorists. That's where we have to start as a fundamental principle.

But wait,there's more. When Cain gave that muddled answer -- and followed-up in a way that contradicted his apparent earlier statement -- the media were already preoccupied with his apparent support for an electrified border fence.

On Oct. 15, Cain told two Tennessee crowds that he'd put an electrified fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. "It's going to be 20 feet high," he said. "And it's going to be electrified." The next day, on NBC's "Meet the Press," Cain insisted the electrified fence was a joke: "That's a joke," he told host David Gregory. "That's not a serious plan. I've also said America needs to get a sense of humor."

Except it might not have been a joke after all. The next day, after meeting with notorious immigration hardliner and Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Cain said he really did want to build a fence and that "it might be electrified."

The biggest walkback of Cain's campaign involved his attitude toward Muslims. In March, Cain told ThinkProgress he would not appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet:

No, I will not. And here's why. There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government. This is what happened in Europe. And little by little, to try and be politically correct, they made this little change, they made this little change. And now they've got a social problem that they don't know what to do with hardly.

Two months later, Cain told Glenn Beck that he never said he wouldn't have a Muslim in his Cabinet. "I did not say that I would not have them in my Cabinet. Because if you look at my career, I have hired good people regardless of race, religion, sex, gender or orientation and this sort of thing," Cain claimed.

He sought to further clarify in June, telling reporters, "I am not anti-Muslim. I am anti-terrorist." In July, Cain completed his 180 and met with Muslims in Northern Virginia, releasing an apology for his original statement: "While I stand by my opposition to the interference of sharia law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends."

Cain's propensity for bold statements followed by reversals and clarifications goes back to his 2003 Senate run in Georgia, when he told the conservative publication Human Events that he might not support a ban on human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research because he thought there could be medical uses for it. He went on to say he would support the ban.

In an interview published on Oct. 3, 2003, Cain said: "That's not a simple yes-no answer. Because there are some medical-biological aspects of this whole cloning thing, this whole stem-cell tissue thing, that I don't want to give a blanket yes-no to at this particular point. So I'm going to not answer that one, because, I think it's more complicated than just banning all human cloning. I need to know more about that before I can say, and I need to know specifically what it says."

Cain submitted a clarification to Human Events, published on Oct. 30, 2003: "... Allow me to make myself clear. Without reservation, I am totally opposed to human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. The ethical and moral issues that surround human cloning, for reproduction or biomedical research, are significant. It is never acceptable to create life for the sole purpose of destroying it. The embryos that result from cloning-for-biomedical-research are human beings. When they are destroyed to benefit medical research or to extract stem cells, a human life is taken."

Those are just his full-on walkbacks. Cain has said other curious things during his current presidential run, such as professing not to be familiar with the neoconservative movement.

Sometimes, the misstatements seem to come because Cain is answering questions definitively when he hasn't fully prepared for them. For instance, Cain told an interviewer in early May that the U.S. should not target American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. But in the video of the interview, it's not entirely clear that Cain knew who Awlaki was.

When a U.S. drone killed the suspected terrorist, Cain lauded Awlaki's death, contradicting his categorical insistence that the U.S. give its citizens due process, even when they're suspected of terrorism.

Cain pattern of walkbacks seems a byproduct of the very same personal characteristics that make people like him so much to begin with. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Herman Cain, you can't deny that he's more likable than most politicians, a group of people famous for and trained extensively in the art of evading questions. At their worst, presidential candidates seem bogus, superficial, and nakedly self-serving. Despite his clear ambitions, Cain never does: He generally answers the questions he's asked, and he answers them directly. It's just that he also chooses to re-answers them later -- after he discovers his views don't sit well with key voting constituencies.

Image credit: Fox News/The Hill

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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