Why Cain isn’t Sunk Among GOP

November 7th, 2011



This piece was originally published by Politico.

The Herman Cain spectacle demonstrates one thing: What this country needs is a good smoke-filled room.

Maybe his party could find out how serious the sexual harassment charges against Cain were. “People need to know what the facts are,” former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour said on Sunday.

In what seems like the distant past, according to legend, candidates were vetted by party leaders who took them aside and asked, “Is there anything about your moral or medical or legal or financial history we ought to know about?” Warren Harding is said to have replied, “I’m as pure as the driven snow.”

In those days, presidential nominations were controlled by convention delegates, who were handpicked party functionaries. They took their orders from party bosses. That ended with the bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, at which the delegates nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey for president — though the primary voters had backed Sen. Eugene McCarthy. The result? Outrage. And reform. We took power away from the party bosses and gave it to the people.

And one thing we know: Once you’ve given power to the people, you can never take it back. But how are ordinary voters supposed to get information about the candidates so they can make an informed decision? That function has devolved to the media. Newspapers and TV networks started sending out questionnaires to the candidates asking them for raw data concerning their medical and legal and moral and financial backgrounds — not to mention their SAT scores and college records. The press became a player in the nominating process.

In 1987, the press drove two Democratic candidates out of the race before a single primary vote was cast — Sens. Gary Hart and Joe Biden. The media simply went on strike and refused to cover any story except Hart’s “Monkey Business” and Biden’s plagiarism. “This is never going to stop, is it?” Hart asked just before pulling out.

Twenty-four years later, Herman Cain is discovering the same thing. In their two-man debate on Saturday, Newt Gingrich asked Cain if anything had surprised him about running for president. “It is the actions and behavior of the media that have been the biggest surprise,” Cain responded. “There are too many people in the media who are downright dishonest. … They do a disservice to the American people.”

The audience of Texas Republicans gave him a standing ovation.

If party bosses were still vetting the candidates in smoke-filled rooms, they would have reached an obvious conclusion: Cain is in no way qualified to be president. He has many admirable qualities, but he does not have the knowledge or the experience to lead the country. Even his campaign fails every basic test of competence. Except one — that he has been rising in the polls. What’s that about?

It’s about the fact that Cain is not a professional politician. That’s a good thing to be, or not to be, at a time when professional politicians are despised. Cain was a professional lobbyist, something we recently found out about even though he chose not to make it a big part of his life story. Every time Cain says or does something foolish — which is just about every day now — he proves his point: I don’t play this game very well because I am not a professional politician. And the contributions increase ($6.7 million since Oct. 1), and his poll numbers go up.

Cain is turning the press into his foil. It worked for Bill Clinton when he first ran for president in 1992. That’s how Clinton survived the crucial New Hampshire primary test. When the press went after Clinton on his draft record and his relationship with Gennifer Flowers, Clinton took his campaign directly to the people. He insisted on face-to-face meetings with New Hampshire voters. He bet that the voters were more interested in their own economic problems than in the details of his personal life.

The bet paid off. Clinton used the voters to defy the press and force them into submission. Cain is trying to do the same thing. Saturday, Cain refused to answer any more questions from the press about the sexual harassment allegations. “We are getting back on message,” he insisted. “End of story. … Everything has been answered.”

Well, no, it hasn’t. But Cain is raising the stakes. It’s no longer about whether he’s ethically qualified to be president. It’s become a battle between the novice candidate and the news media — an institution conservatives regard as their congenital enemy.

Of course, Cain is scoring points with GOP primary voters. Who do you think they’re going to side with in a confrontation between a conservative champion and the news media?

That could change now that a woman who claims to have been sexually harassed by Cain has come forward to tell her story. But will she present a dignified and sympathetic face like that of Anita Hill, who reluctantly came forward to testify against Clarence Thomas when he was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1991?

Thomas also raised the stakes. His confirmation hearing turned into a trial. To oppose Thomas no longer meant you thought he was unqualified. It meant you thought he was guilty.

It would have been an explosive verdict — particularly after Thomas labeled the proceedings as “a high-tech lynching” of a black man. This time, Cain has accused liberals of “trying to attack me to intimidate other black conservatives to not go public.”

Could Cain ride this issue all the way to the Republican nomination? That seems unlikely. But keep in mind that Thomas did end up on the nation’s highest court.