Like Howard Dean, another political Icarus, candidate Herman Cain rose higher and faster than he had ever imagined possible. Like Dean, he was poorly prepared to handle that high-flying success.
But that’s where their story lines diverge. Dean, the early Democratic frontrunner in 2004, went on to serve as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and become a respected figure in the party. Cain’s story seems destined to take a more tragic arc.
In the beginning, the former pizza-company CEO saw the campaign as a chance to bask in the fringes of the national spotlight, advance his media career and maybe even talk a little about his favorite cause, the FairTax. It was a no-lose proposition. He saw no reason to spend the time or money to put together a professional political operation, no need to prepare himself with extensive study of the issues of the day. More importantly, as it turns out, he felt little need to deal with any skeletons that might be lingering in his closet, because he had no reason to believe that they would ever become relevant.
He would just wing it and see how far his salesman’s spiel, big smile and booming laugh would take him.
In Cain’s defense, he could not have known that those traits would take him a long, long way. I confess that I certainly didn’t see all this coming. When Cain announced last spring, I wrote him off, noting that “for all the fervor, let’s be honest: Cain is not a legitimate candidate for president.” And I was far from alone. In a common sentiment, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer also dismissed the Cain candidacy on Fox News, saying it existed for “entertainment purposes only.”
At the time, in his heart of hearts, I’m not sure that Cain himself disagreed with that assessment. But funny things started to happen. Prominent Republicans such as Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee declined to run, creating a vacuum of sorts. A series of challengers to frontrunner Mitt Romney rose to prominence and then collapsed under the weight of their own incompetence and extremism. And throughout it all, there was Cain, offering himself as an empty vessel to a lot of Republicans seeking a place to pour their frustrations and resentment.
Naturally, as Cain began to move up the polls and attract more scrutiny, he began to make mistakes. His lack of preparation and seriousness began to betray him. Things began spiraling out of his control, but oddly, that spiral was lifting him higher, into the upper echelon of GOP candidates. With each mistake, he gained more and more visibility. His popularity seemed to grow by feeding off negative stories that would have crushed a more traditional candidate.
As of a month ago, Cain had achieved the fame and the name recognition that he had sought and then some. Had the campaign somehow ended right then, it would have been a remarkable success and Cain could have reaped significant rewards from it. But that’s not how such things work.
As Dean can attest, once a novelty candidacy begins to take on the trappings of the real thing, everything changes. The media start taking you seriously. Your opponents start to take you seriously. Most importantly, you start taking yourself seriously. I have always believed that Dean’s self-destruction in the 2004 campaign was driven largely by his own panic at finding the Big Brass Ring within his grasp, and knowing he wasn’t ready for it.
I still don’t believe that Cain ever had a shot at the nomination. But for understandable reasons, he began to think he did. Suddenly, he had something to lose, and it changed how he operated. He became defensive with the press. He picked a fight with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The genial Cain became aloof and angry Cain.
And then, of course, the claims of sexual harassment hit, threatening to undo every gain that Cain has made in this campaign. With two paid settlements on his record, and at current count two other women making allegations, it is hard even for his defenders to dismiss it all as lies.
Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to someone is success.