Sunday, May 22, 2011

Citizens for Cain

In the politics of celebrity and the celebrity of politics, the importance of buzz is not to be underestimated. The je ne sais quoi factor — that elusive sense of maybe being the right person in the right place at the right time — can be a huge boost when other, more metrically-driven qualifications fail to impress. For a while anyway.

This is the lightning in a bottle the Republicans are desperate to capture in the runup to the 2012 presidential campaign. Some in the conservative camp are pinning their hopes on the man who spoke over the weekend at a rally at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. About 15,000 people watched as Herman Cain, syndicated columnist, radio talk-show host, former mathematics specialist on computer systems and ballistics for the United States Navy, and former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza, began his quest for a bigger CEO job.

“On this day, this hour, this moment, I came here to declare my candidacy for the Republican nomination for the president of the United States of America.”

“I stand here today as the son of a chaffeur and a domestic worker,” Cain said Saturday professing his credo trio: “belief in God … belief in what we can do for ourselves … and belief in this exceptional nation called the United States of America. Believe in it!”

The 15,000 who were there on Saturday seemed ready to believe in a Cain candidacy; so did the members of a focus group of likely GOP voters, people who judged Cain the winner of a May 5th televised debate in South Carolina, hands down.

There are some pleasant surprises in what Herman Cain could bring to the Republicans’ table — and some things that suggest ways in which the devil and the details are intertwined.

Like Mitt Romney, Cain has run a business; he’s had to hit a payroll and execute strategies and make hard-nosed business decisions. That kind of practical, bottom-line experience as a manager tends to play well with Republicans.

He’s had previous political experience; Cain was a senior economic adviser to the Dole-Kemp campaign in 1996. He also ran for Zell Miller’s Senate seat in 2004, finishing second in the primary.

Unlike Romney, Cain has experience in finance at the level of federal policy; he was the deputy chairman and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Despite the Tea Party taint to some of his early platform (and much of his pre-primary season rhetoric), Cain has generally sounded the right notes for conservatives. He brings none of the health-care related problems of Romney, none of the presumptive bad press of Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, and none of the formidable personal baggage of Newt Gingrich. (A Cain 2012 effort would be a headline writer’s dream, too; how many times would he referred to in the media during the campaign as CITIZEN CAIN?)

Some in the conservative thoughtocracy have gone so far as to link Herman Cain to the holy of holies, Ronald Reagan. Former UPI international managing editor Martin Sieff took that leap on the Fox News Web site on Sunday:

“Is there any candidate in the current crop that stands out from the rest in the courage, clarity and resonating wit of his utterances as Reagan always did?

“Indeed there is.

“Only Herman Cain, who officially announced his candidacy on Saturday, of the current crop of Republican candidates has the moral stature, the record of achievement, the outspoken wit and candor, and the simple courage to speak his mind that were the hallmarks of the Great Reagan. Only he has proved to be an eloquent and effective public spokesman without fear or hesitation in championing those same principles.”

Cain’s thus a fresh face. Fresh in more ways than one.

Yes, there’s that elephant in the room: the matter of race. As an African American Republican conservative, he could represent the sea change in self-identity that the Republican party has needed for a generation.

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If the party leadership, and its enablers in fundraising groups and the media, got behind a Cain 2012 campaign, if that campaign could get beyond the old demographic regional agonies that have made nonwhite candidates for the presidency such a rarity, Cain could cut (however marginally) into the presumed Democratic advantage among black voters.

There’s substance in symbolism: Herman Cain as the Republican nominee for president would be nothing less than a thunderclap across the American political landscape — a clarion statement that whether it wins or loses in 2012, the Republican Party recognizes that Change is, or can be, an equal opportunity political experience.

Whatever his specific policies and platform might be on the campaign trail in a general election season, a Cain campaign would be an implicit reach for a wider swath of the American electorate. There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Republicans in recent years about how to achieve meaningful inroads into the nonwhite American demographic.

The full weight of the party fundraising and political apparatus behind a Cain campaign would resonate powerfully, if briefly, in this country: For the first time on race matters in far too long, the party of Lincoln would share its namesake’s willingness to break with the past in order to achieve the future. That could yield dividends a year from this November.

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That, of course, depends on the Republicans having the courage to do it, or to otherwise think outside the box with respect to who they nominate. That’s probably the biggest obstacle to the success of a Cain White House bid.

The GOP may be playing for time. Steve Schmidt, a honcho in McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, said recently that the more “serious” candidates may wait to get into the race until “as late as the fall.” The thinking seems to be that by then, party poohbahs will have formed a consensus around a credible contender. Undiscussed at this point is the possibility that we may have seen the best of the field already — that what’s left of the current crop of hopefuls is as good as we’re going to get.

As things stand now, Cain’s fortunes rise almost by default. With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announcing Saturday that he won’t run in 2012, Donald Trump’s meretricious non-campaign finally over, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee bowing out last week, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour doing the same the week before that, a Cain White House bid gains a certain traction by its very existence.

Something’s got to give. We’re damn near to June and the Republicans haven’t coalesced around any one contender as their best and brightest. Before much longer, certainly by September, introducing the name of some nick-of-time latecomer will likely be interpreted as the sign of desperation it may actually be.

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A lot also depends on how much Cain himself is ready for prime time. To go by recent appearances, and especially his announcement in Atlanta on Saturday, his stump style is long on volume, bromide and repurposing of the familiar. He badly mangled the climactic passage of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on Saturday.

Earlier in that speech, Cain toed the Tea Party line: “We are going to take our country back!” he said, offering no more detail than anyone else as to who they’d be taking it back from.

Then on Sunday, Cain proved that the Gingrich strain of foot-in-mouth disease may be communicable.

Cain appeared on Fox News Sunday, in his first interview since declaring the day before. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked Cain for where he stood on the controversial issue of the Palestinians’ "right of return."

"The right of return? … The right of return?" asked Cain.

"The Palestinian right of return," Wallace said.

"I think it should be negotiated," Cain replied.

"Do you think the refugees, the people that were kicked out of the land in 1948, should be able to have any right to return to Israeli land?" Wallace asked.

"Yes, but not under Palestinian conditions," Cain said. "Yes, they should have the right to come back if that is a decision that Israel wants to make."

"It's up to Israel to determine things they want to accept," he added. "I don't think they have a problem with people returning. The issue is that there are some things they simply don't want to give in on."

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It was a less than stellar performance of Cain on international matters, one that didn’t go unnoticed on either side of the political aisle.

Faiz Shakir, editor-in-chief of, wrote that "Cain desperately needs a foreign policy briefing so that he can get his talking points in order." National Review's Jonah Goldberg wasn’t impressed by Cain's "clearly flummoxed response” on the Palestinian question. A day or two earlier, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer had already dissed Cain's candidacy as "entertainment."

But (to invoke a saying the candidate might probably use himself) it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish. For now — for the moment — Cain’s captured the attention of some of the citizens and much of the media.

His next task is to prepare to reach beyond the choir that’s predisposed to sing his praises. His party’s next task may be to finally let him, and others like him, inside the church where the choir is.

Image credits: Cain top: AP/David Goldman. Cain lower: Fox News Sunday. Draft Cain graphic: From Web site homepage. Cain 2012 logo: Herman Cain Web site.

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