Herman Cain’s meteoric rise and fall in the GOP presidential nomination race will be a subject of sustained inquiry for some time. Chris Cillizza does some early prognosticating for the Washington Post over who is likely to benefit if and when (likely when) Cain withdraws in the wake of the Ginger White extramarital affair story that broke Monday.
But some larger questions require some attention, beyond the inevitable “he said / she said” and the “how does this affect the horse race?” chat. We ought to consider how a Herman Cain candidacy got as far as it did, given its unconventional candidate and campaign approach.
Let me say at the outset that I’m not sure what to make of Herman Cain. He perplexes me because, honestly, I can’t put my finger on how or why he got as far as he did. It was actually relatively late into his candidacy that I first came across Rachel Maddow’s discussion of the “Herman Cain art project,” in which she satirically suggests that Cain was never actually a real presidential candidate, but has been perpetrating an extended performance art piece on the absurdities of politics that, somehow, not enough observers ever recognized.
Maddow refers to Cain’s quoting of a “great poet” in an Iowa debate that actually turned out to be the lyrics of the Pokemon 2000 movie theme song; his “9-9-9″ tax plan being the primary tax arrangement in the computer game Sim City; his use of a line from the action flick Rush Hour 3 to describe his relationship to the conservative financiers the Koch brothers as their “brother from another mother;” and his exhortation in one address that “we need a leader, not a reader” as a paraphrase from The Simpsons Movie.
Maddow is surely in jest when she suggests that all of this pop culture intertextuality is an intentional, satirical orchestration. But the pattern suggests at the very least is that Cain’s scripted sound bites and slogans from his campaign staff have been uncareful to the point of self-parody. Consider the now widely lampooned Cain online campaign ad featuring his chief of staff Mark Block exhorting the virtues of the Cain candidacy, followed by an inexplicable and creepy close-up of Block smoking, exhaling for what is apparently dramatic effect at :40 seconds in:
And don’t get me started on his attempt to co-opt Sarah Palin’s charges that his frontrunner status was a “flavor of the week” moment by dubbing his particular ice cream flavor “black walnut.”
Cain continued this self-parody in his attempted public inoculation against gotcha questions on foreign policy when he now famously told a Christian Broadcasting Network interviewer:
When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say you know, I don’t know. Do you know?
This inoculation was ineffective, as such subsequent foreign policy gaffes emerged as patent confusion over President Obama’s military approach to Libya and a suggestion that China was currently pursuing nuclear capability. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart caught flak from FOX News, Donald Trump and others who accused him of a racist attack, following such bits as a reaction to Cain’s public declaration that he would allow as President only 3-page long legislative bills. Cain’s frequently expressed belief that most Muslims are extremists (or at least threatening enough to warrant TSA terrorist profiling), as well as his was-it-a-joke-or-wasn’t-it statement that he would secure the US-Mexican border with a lethal electric fence, have led many to question both his grasp of foreign policy and security issues as well as his capacity for prudential judgment and appropriately presidential public discourse.
And then there’s the sexual harassment allegations, followed by the Ginger White allegations of a 13 year extramarital affair.
By any standard political measure, Herman Cain would be a highly problematic presidential candidate to support: no experience in elective office, demonstrable deficits in public policy knowledge, a proclivity for off-the-cuff, ill-advised impromptu remarks.
So what’s going on here? Despite seemingly self-destructive campaign behavior, Cain has until recently been a favorite of many conservative Republicans, and has enjoyed a top-tier candidate status. It may be, as ABC News suggested, that Cain’s campaign strategy has deliberately been to be “different,” thus reaching out to disaffected voters that are reluctant to grant the nomination to Mitt Romney, whose resume and poise in media communication cast him as a presidential candidate straight out of central casting.
Perhaps there’s something to Rachel Maddow’s “art project” argument after all. I am reluctant to chalk up Cain’s success up to this point solely to the questionable judgment of conservative GOP partisans. What seems to me more plausible is the reality that Herman Cain is great TV.
As an African American conservative, he flies in the face of the conventional Republican presidential identity, which may be attractive to those in the GOP eager to “find their own Obama” — itself an explanation for the rapid ascent and descent of former RNC chairman Michael Steele. Steele’s election to the Republican National Committee chairmanship came on the heels of Obama’s historic presidential victory. The GOP sought to put a new, change-oriented face on the party, particularly given what, according to Steele, was its “image problem.” As we now know, a series of undisciplined public performances, culminating in attacks on Obama’s Afghanistan “war of his own choosing” that even his own party largely disavowed, led to his ouster.
Let’s be clear: No one is suggesting, by the identification of Steele and Cain as isolated instances, that there aren’t any politically competent African American Republicans. Of course there are — the former GOP Congressional standout J.C. Watts, for instance. The suggestion here is, rather, that the GOP has lately seemed to be more interested in locating a charismatic Black face to represent their party than in actually reaching out to the African American community in a meaningful way. The stagecraft, rather than the substance, wins out.
We’ve seen this, of course, in the other “Not-Romney” flavors of the week: Michele Bachmann’s unapologetic bravado in the face of multiple gaffes and frequently extreme positions, leading to an Ames straw poll victory in August and brief frontrunner status before flaming out with the emergence of… Rick Perry, apparently drafted into the campaign to provide a larger-than-life Texas persona to out-charisma Romney, until several poor debate performances and a now infamously incoherent New Hampshire speech led to his flame-out… followed by Cain’s ascendency. And now, as multiple allegations of questionable behavior threaten his candidacy, Newt Gingrich has used some effective debate performances and a strategically red-meat attack on Occupy Wall Street to take over frontrunner status.
Along the way, the candidate who will likely be the nominee of the Republican Party has been consistently framed by the news media as an “also-ran,” a disliked and unsatisfactory choice for Republcans who chafe both at the inevitability and at his, well, generic “ideal-ness” as a typical presidential candidate. Smart Politics recently conducted a content analysis of the last five months of news media coverage of the GOP candidates by ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX News, MSNBC, and NPR — and found that, while Romney has been mentioned in stories over the five months more than any other candidate, he has been given the most coverage time in only four weeks of the 22 week period, consistently overshadowed by other candidates who surge and recede. And given the predictable tendencies of televisual news values, it makes sense: Romney is poised, articulate, conventionally handsome, measured and calculating in his public statements, and thoroughly inoffensive in his self-presentation. He’s terrible TV.
Time will tell whether the battle for “who’s the strongest TV presence in the GOP” will ultimately weaken the eventual nominee to the point that Obama’s reelection is secured, and whether the ebb and flow of media fascination and scrutiny of these more televisual candidates ultimately damage their long-term political viability beyond repair.
It seems clear, though, that whoever has been responsible for letting Herman Cain’s entertaining but ultimately un-presidential and inevitably doomed campaign go on as long as it has, to the point that he has now joined the ranks of political sex scandal punch lines, was certainly not serving Cain as his brother’s keeper.