Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cain’s dignified climbdown

It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong, or certainly a practical one. When the facts and numbers you claim to live by add up to something other than what you thought, there’s evidence of a grasp of reality when you say, in front of God and the media and everybody, my bad.

Whatever else one thinks of his politics, it’s fair to concede that Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain came to such a moment of contrition when, on Wednesday, he apologized to Muslim Americans for various comments he’s made in his wobbly but earnest quest for the Republican nomination.

Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, did so in full throat, not making his mea culpas in the manicured arena of a video studio in an undisclosed location, or using a desiccated boilerplate press release to Apologize If I Offended Anyone.

Cain showed up, meeting with four Muslim leaders at the ADAMS (All Dulles Area Muslim Society) Center in Sterling, Va., with 5,000 families and seven branches one of the largest mosques in the Washington, D.C. area — the candidate, face to face with some of the people he had offended in recent months.

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“I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends," Cain said later in a statement Wednesday. "I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed any commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it."

Cain characterized the meeting positively, and praised its "heartfelt fellowship and thoughtful dialogue."

"The relationship we established was so positive that the Imam has invited me back to speak to not only some of their youth, but also at one of their worship services," he said.

And Cain, significantly, reached back into his own past as an African American man in the Jim Crow South, and established a powerful — and maybe even game-changing — cultural symmetry between their experience and his own.

"In my own life as a black youth growing up in the segregated South, I understand their frustration with stereotypes," Cain said. "Those in attendance, like most Muslim Americans, are peaceful Muslims and patriotic Americans whose good will is often drowned out by the reprehensible actions of jihadists."

Early reaction suggests some love going back. "He seemed genuinely surprised," said Robert Marro, an ADAMS Center trustee, to TPM. "It was almost like he was saying, 'I should've known better.'"

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What bears watching now is the reaction — though some might say the blowback — to Cain’s remarks from the Tea Party life form of the Republican Party that’s had his back since he launched his campaign in May. Whether by coincidence or by design, Cain’s reachout to Muslim Americans complicates the antagonistic reflexes of the Tea Party, and Republicans generally, toward Muslims.

And it raises the question of whether others in the field of Republican contenders will feel compelled to sign on to Cain’s bid for centrism in the runup to the utterly partisan primaries. Anti-Muslim vitriol has been basic to the Tea Party world-view, almost automatically so.

Now there’s a question of how the Tea Party hierarchy reacts. Will they scream “turncoat!” and “blasphemer!” at Herman Cain before throwing him under the bus? Or will they look at Cain’s statement as an opportunity to make the pivot toward the kind of practicality they need to be as viable as a political force as they think they are?

Cain may have by accident ushered the Tea Party and Republicans generally into a moment of decision they wouldn’t have reached on their own. The candidate’s dignified climbdown from at least one of his extremist scaffolds — are apologies to Mormons and Hispanics next? — suggests a real early reach for pertinence and clarity. Herman Cain made the first move. Because of that move, and regardless of that move, his party can’t afford to stand pat.

Image credits: Cain: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press.

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