If this GOP presidential campaign has taught us anything, it’s not to write any candidate’s political obituary before its time. (Hello, Newt Gingrich.)
So, today I come to praise Herman Cain, not to bury him beneath the opinion polls that show him slipping. No matter how the Georgia businessman’s candidacy turns out, it has done three important things.
As Cain’s popularity surged, there came a stream of allegations that he had sexually harassed women in the past. At first, the charges were vague and anonymous. Later, two women publicly accused Cain.
Depending on your point of view, or your allegiances, the allegations were either part of the vetting process or the lowest kind of character assassination: a he-said, she-said situation in which neither side can definitively prove its case.
While Cain’s poll numbers dipped slightly, donations to his campaign funds also rose. So, ultimately, while voters weighed the stories against what they previously believed about his character, Cain successfully avoided the trap of letting unproven accusations redefine his character or his fitness for the job. That’s one.
Eventually, though, Cain’s fitness for the job came into greater question — due instead to his unfortunate record of stumbling over issues that ought not to be “gotcha” topics for someone who aspires to the White House.
Cain’s line last month about not knowing about “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” grew less funny this past week after he appeared stumped — or unable to remember his lines — when asked about President Barack Obama’s policies toward Libya.
It was of a piece with his earlier confusion about the “right of return” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; his serial punting when asked what he’d do in Afghanistan; his inability, in Miami, to comment on the “wet foot, dry foot” policy toward Cuban immigrants; and his over-reliance on his 9-9-9 tax plan to explain how he’d improve things at home.
Voters often say they want candidates who aren’t career politicians. That’s particularly true on the right — which is one reason why Rick Perry, who’s held one state office or another in Texas since 1985, bashes Washington; why Mitt Romney, who’s been running (mostly unsuccessfully) for one state or federal office or another for 17 years, talks up his business experience; and why Gingrich, the former speaker of the United States House of Representatives, calls himself a Washington outsider.
But Cain’s occasional slips have revealed the tension between wanting someone who hasn’t spent a lifetime trying to become president, and wanting someone who has spent considerable time thinking about the things presidents have to think about. That’s two.
But Cain’s boldness pushed his competitors to produce their own tax plans. Whoever emerges from the primary will have a serious proposal with which to oppose Obama’s mine-mine-mine plan for your money — and will be harder to peg as part of a “party of no” that only opposes Democrats’ policies.
That’s three. Together, those three things helped to make for a better contest.
(What, you thought one of the three would be that Cain proved conservatives could support a black Republican? Nah. Only liberals thought otherwise before.)
– By Kyle Wingfield