Herman Cain’s presidential campaign is now in permanent suspension, thus ending one of the more entertaining sub-plots of the Republican primary race, and we’re left wondering what that was all about.
Cain first appeared in the race as one of the names mentioned near the bottom of the early handicapping sheets that journalists provide for politics buffs, in the final paragraphs where the long shots, dark horses and prayerless are briefly listed. Even then the Cain candidacy was intriguing, as he was usually given the thumbnail description of “former Godfather’s Pizza CEO,” something previously unseen on any presidential aspirant’s resume.
The bits of additional information about Cain that seeped into the news further piqued the conservative’s interest. He held degrees in mathematics and computer science from Morehouse and Purdue, a welcome change from the usual Ivy League law degree, and worked with the U.S. Navy on the way to a successful career in fast food. His only political experience was as an economic consultant to the failed campaigns of Jack Kemp and Bob Dole, and a two year stint as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Kansas City and Omaha branch was the closest he’d come to a public sector job, but that lack of experience only meant Cain was blameless in the minds of primary voters who have come to distrust the entire political establishment.
Such a unique biography earned Cain invitations to appear on the media, and at the outset he made the most of it. A former talk show host, Cain was especially effective schmoozing with his friendly former colleagues on the conservative airwaves, where his down-home language, southern manners, and irresistible likeability cut through the static on even the oldest pickup truck’s radio. He came across as commonsensical, at least enough to be trusted not to repeat the obvious mistakes of the current administration, and if his answers sometimes seemed uninformed or clumsy, well, that was just more evidence that he wasn’t one of those hated politicians.
Cain next proposed to replace the current tax system with nine percent rates on corporate and personal income taxes and a nine percent national sales tax, which quickly became famous as the “nine nine nine” plan. The proposal would likely be a hard sell to a general electorate, particularly that last “nine,” but it met the Republican primary voters’ criteria of being flatter, broader, simpler, and less amendable to congressional deal-making with special interests. Better yet, it was endorsed by conservative tax guru Arthur Laffer, and it had a catchy name. Combined with Cain’s appealing personality and life story, the party’s reluctance to nominate frontrunner Mitt Romney, and the other challengers’ numerous missteps, it was enough to momentarily push him to the top of the polls.
The surprising numbers were met with skepticism by the more sober conservative commentators, and full blown panic among liberals who feared that Cain might cut into the Democrat’s near-monolithic support from blacks. We had read several stories about Cain in the supposedly racist conservative press before learning that he is black, and only then because of an accompanying photograph, but the supposedly color-blind pundits on the left seemed to have noticed immediately. Liberal entertainers such as Janeane Garofalo and Harry Belafonte, as well as Princeton University’s Cornel West and other weightier thinkers, struggled mightily to explain how Cain’s popularity with the Tea Party activists proved the movement’s racism, leading to some of the best comedy of the campaign thus far. MSNBC analyst Karen Finney snorted that Republicans liked Cain as “a black man who knows his place,” apparently oblivious to the fact that Cain and his mostly white supporters were trying to win him a place in the White House.
Such liberal opprobrium only strengthened Cain’s conservative support, and sent even the skeptics rushing to his defense, but Cain’s fall came with the same suddenness as his rise.
First came the sexual harassment allegations. Initially revealed by the left-leaning Politico web site, the stories were vague, anonymously sourced, and readily dismissed by Cain’s die-hards as a liberal smear job. An alleged victim came forward with a more specific tale that depicted Cain as far less than likeable, but she did so with the help of Gloria Allred, one of the main reasons people dislike lawyers, so the worst she could do was plant a seed of doubt. Then came Ginger White and her claim of a 13-year affair with Cain; She had some suspicious financial and legal troubles to cast doubt on her tale, but she also had phone records and other corroborating evidence. When Cain explained to a friendly radio interlocutor that he had been friends with White for 13 years, but had never mentioned the friendship — nor his “financial assistance” — to his wife, he no longer seemed as commonsensical.
More damage was done, we believe, by a series of Cain’s bad answers to good questions. On CNN he seemed to say that abortion should be illegal but women should have the choice of breaking the law, and seemed to be caught off-guard by the question, as if he had expected to run a race for the Republican nomination without being confronted by the issue. He seemed surprised again to be asked about Libya, and was inconsistent and evasive in dealing with questions about the sexual harassment charges and settlement his former employer had reached with his accusers. Such amateurish responses had previously been touted as proof that Cain wasn’t a professional politician, an endearing trait in an underdog, but they didn’t befit his frontrunner status.
All of which led to Cain’s early exit from the race this past weekend, which we see a helpful development for the Republicans. The left is deprived of the opportunity to blame Cain’s defeat on racism, and will likely allow Cain and his brief moment of Republican adulation to be quickly forgotten. The attention of primary voters will be properly focused on most likely candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, or whichever of the remaining challengers can somehow come into contention, and the distraction of the sordid allegations against Cain will be eliminated.
It might even provide voters with a necessary caution against being swayed by personalities and populist appeals, a human tendency as common on the right side of the political spectrum as on the left.
– Bud Norman