Herman Cain’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week ended on a discordantly high note. Addressing a packed ballroom in Washington’s Convention Centre, the former pizza mogul prompted whoops and cheers when he referred obliquely to the sexual harassment storm that had at times threatened to sweep away his White House candidacy.
“You know, I’ve been in Washington all week, and I’ve attracted a little bit of attention,” he boomed. “And there was an article in The New York Times today that has attempted to attract some more attention. You know, that’s kind of what happens when you start to show up near or at the top of the polls. It just happens that way.”
The article in question was one of the few that had not been about allegations that Cain, the unlikely Republican front runner in national polls, had behaved inappropriately with women while he was president of the National Restaurant Association.
Instead, the article sought to bracket Cain with the Koch brothers, the billionaire bogeymen for liberals who founded the Americans for Prosperity group and pump money into conservative and liberal causes. Rather than seek to wriggle out of the association, Cain embraced it, declaring, as the room erupted: “I am the Koch brothers’ brother from another mother.”
The address by the former motivational speaker, at the Americans for Prosperity annual conference, was vintage Cain – strong on rhetoric, short on policy detail, powerfully delivered and unashamedly politically incorrect.
Hours earlier, an ABC/Washington Post poll had found that Cain’s national popularity had improved during a week that, by any conventional standards, had been disastrous.
Mitt Romney, the best-funded, most-disciplined and most experienced candidate, was stuck on 25 percent while Cain was up six points from a month at 23 percent and breathing down his neck. As every student of American politics knows, national polls matter little in a primary race. But the surveys in early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina are also indicating that Cain has not been damaged.
There’s no way this should be happening. The 65-year-old grandfather’s response to the sexual harassment claims that have emerged out of the woodwork after a dozen years has been miserable. At least two cases were settled for a total of $80,000 after allegations were made against him.
Rather than being prepared for the inevitable disclosure of the cases, he was caught flat-footed, claiming at first not to remember what had happened and then dribbling out details and shifting explanations over the ensuing days. He fuelled more controversy by blaming Governor Rick Perry’s campaign for planting the story, lost his temper with the press and was barely able to talk about the US economy until his speech on Friday.
By any normal rules of politics, Cain should be toast. So what’s going on?
Simply put, the media and Cain’s detractors have over-played their hand. By Friday night, Politico, which broke the original story, had published 94 articles on the allegations in under six days. Every other major publication had followed suit. Every time he stepped out of a room, Cain was mobbed by reporters.
Yet despite the maelstrom, Cain’s accusers remain anonymous and the details of the allegations oddly vague. With many conservatives believing that sexual harassment lawsuits are an industry and that frivolous cases are often settled to avoid more expensive litigation, there was a growing sense that Cain was being treated unfairly.
Cain’s very amateurishness became almost endearing. Rather than mouthing slick talking points, Cain got angry with the journalists (a profession loathed by most Republican activists) and claimed that he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching”.
That was the phrase used by Clarence Thomas during the ugly confirmation hearings for his seat on the Supreme Court in 1991. Thomas had been accused by Anita Hill, a former subordinate, of making crude sexual comments.
Vilified and mocked by the Left, Thomas’s righteous anger boiled over as he condemned the hearings as “a circus” and “a national disgrace” in which “uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves” would be destroyed. “You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.”
Cain, of course, is also a black conservative. As such, he sends many on the Left crazy because he defies the standard categories of politics. White conservatives are eager to support conservatives of colour partly to combat allegations of racism but also because they appreciate the courage it takes for blacks to break out of the Democratic party straitjacket.
Despite his anti-politician message and his campaign gaffes (he did not know China had nuclear weapons, had not heard of the Palestinian right of return and suggested he would free Guantanamo Bay prisoners if terrorist hostage-takers demanded it, to name but three) Cain is a shrewd operator.
While decrying race-based politics, Cain has been happy to compare himself to Haagen Dazs black walnut ice cream, joke that he’s a “dark horse” or quip that his Secret Service codename should be “Cornbread” . By Friday, a Cain Super PAC had cut a television ad entitled: “High-tech lynching”.
Just as Barack Obama’s race was a key part of his appeal in 2008, Cain is a more attractive candidate for Republicans because he is black. Obama’s supporters responded with fury and lobbed accusations of racism when their candidate came under legitimate attack from the Clintons. Cain backers have been similarly vehement.
Sexual allegations against a black man are rightly treated with great suspicion by many Americans because they play on the kind of fears and taboos examined in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. With the case against him thin and the accusation so incendiary, Cain’s predicament is prompting more sympathy than opprobrium.
Those who leaked the details of the 1990s sexual harassment cases might have thought that they’d destroy Herman Cain and leave his campaign dangling from a tree. But, as befits this strange and unpredictable election campaign, a funny thing happened on the way to the lynching.
emphasis is mine