While the Democratic nomination is effectively Barack Obama’s, the battle for the Republican nomination has been part of a larger struggle for the soul of that party. The argument is between the last gasp of old-style moderates and a new, angry populism, increasingly isolationist and centred on social values.
It is still a few months before the first actual primary election, but the path to the Republican nomination is littered with the failing, failed or abortive candidacies of Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Gary Johnson, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.
And now, the newest and perhaps most improbable rocket man, Herman Cain, may both be straining for his apogee and beginning to fall back to Earth almost simultaneously. Or perhaps he is still destined to rise higher, depending on the spin-doctors – and the voters’ capacity for a willing suspension of disbelief.
Things had been going swimmingly for the Hermanator until Monday morning. His support among Republican voters was neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney’s and even gained pride of place among Texas’ Republicans.
The push behind Cain’s rise included his inspiring and generally true personal narrative, his simple 9-9-9 sales-income-corporate tax plan, his full life outside politics and in the business world, his extraordinarily emphatic and engaging personal presence. In a year when popular belief in the efficacy of the national government seems to have reached an all-time low, the man who steps up and says “I am not a politician, I am from proudly working-class origins, I believe in the eternal verities, I don’t come from Washington, the mess there is not my doing – but I do know how to fix it” gets people’s attention.
The fact that he admitted he didn’t know the names of every president in the world, couldn’t tell a neo-conservative from a tea pot and got his answers scrambled to questions about right-to-life/abortion, enhanced border controls and negotiating with terrorists actually seems to have increased his popularity.
Of course, there is that other side to Herman Cain as well. Although he has been touting himself as a man of the people, a rock-solid business man and nobody’s puppet, it is also true that for the past decade his main line of work has been as a right-wing radio talkshow host and other related right-wing political advocacy work at the behest of the Koch brothers, leading sponsors of varied right-wing political activities
But then came the report on Politico that Cain had been involved in two sexual harassment cases a decade ago. The story is he made two women sufficiently uncomfortable that they quit their jobs and pressed for financial settlements – which they received.
The Cain party appears to have been caught totally unaware by this. Cain had a full slate of activities scheduled from Monday morning to canvas support.
On Monday morning Cain spoke at the National Press Club in Washington on his foreign policy views. In his comments, he said he would apply the very lessons he learned in reviving Godfather’s Pizza to American international affairs policies. Cain explained that when he joined the pizza chain, “I had never made a pizza, but I learned. And the way we renewed Godfather’s Pizza as a company is the same approach I would use to renew America. And that is: If you want to solve a problem, go to the source closest to the problem and ask the right questions. That’s what I believe is America’s problem, we have lost our focus.”
Offering his very lack of knowledge as a demonstration of his bona fides as a candidate, Cain added, “I don’t believe you need to have extensive foreign policy experience if you know how to make sure you’re working on the right problems, establishing the right priorities, surround yourself with the right people, which would allow you to put together the plans necessary to solve the problem. We have an economic crisis, a national security crisis. We’ve got an energy crisis, a spending crisis, a foreign policy crisis, a moral crisis, and the biggest crisis we have is a severe deficiency of leadership in the White House.”
And he took the usual Republican swipe at foreign assistance, saying that when he was elected, he would change the way America doles out foreign aid. Although the National Press Club and other Monday events had been designed to give Cain a chance to demonstrate his policy chops, as the sexual harassment charges became known, the only questions anyone was interested in asking him were about those sexual harassment charges. As the day wore on, Cain’s responses evolved, from being unaware of any harassment, then unaware of any financial settlements and finally that well, yes, there were financial settlements, but they were despite those false accusations.
By the end of the day, Cain himself, together with rightwing chatteratti like Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh were claiming a high-tech witch hunt was taking place by the dastardly liberal media – and linking Cain’s problem to fellow right-wing Republican Clarence Thomas’ agonies with Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment when Thomas was up for a Supreme Court appointment. Hanging just out of sight was the more subliminal idea of the racially charged notion of lynchings of strong black men – an interesting place for Republicans to be in opposition to Barack Obama and his party.
By this point, Cain might well have found that an examination of how South Africa’s minister of sport, Fikile Mbalula, had handled his moments of public ignominy might help. In fact, this harassment business has already become the single most talked about controversy of the 2012 presidential election to date. According to Zach Green’s 140Elect blog, “No other 2012 GOP candidate has gotten over 45,000 mentions in one day…. Barack Obama is the only politician to get more mentions in one day, and only twice: When he killed Osama bin Laden on May 1st, and when he passed the debt ceiling on July 29th.”
Of course, if Cain can continue his political ascent and if this harassment story doesn’t have much more to it than what is known already, he may actually continue to be Mitt Romney’s strongest adversary in the upcoming primaries and caucuses. After all, Bill Clinton survived a whole raft of “bimbo eruptions” and he went on to become president. On the other hand, Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions foundered aboard the yacht “Monkey Business”. But maybe standards have changed and actual adultery is less of a problem for a politician than the taint of harassment. Time columnist Joe Klein was moved to write about this point, saying, “…sexual harassment is different from general poking around since it is a form of aggressive behavior–but it is also more difficult to prove (although the two women in question received cash settlements from the Restaurant Association, which means that we’re probably dealing with some form of industrial-strength obnoxiousness here).”
Meanwhile, assuming it can refocus, Cain’s campaign will continue to reach out to potential Republican primary and caucus voters on a national basis. Maybe this is good politics, the primaries are bunched together and perhaps national TV, social media and the Internet will be the best way to go.
By contrast, Mitt Romney’s campaign has apparently accepted the likelihood of a weak showing in Iowa and by contrast, then, it is giving much attention to New Hampshire as an early bellwether state where he is already popular. While Romney is the former governor of Massachusetts, he now lives in New Hampshire – when he’s not in a hotel room crisscrossing the country.
If the two principal Republican antagonists do boil down to Cain and Romney (or, perhaps, Romney and Perry), the Republican primaries seem destined to be angry confrontations between two very different political traditions and ideas about the future of the party and the country. And then the general election itself will almost certainly take its temperature from the surly mood of the electorate: mistrustful of government, angry about continuing weak economic conditions and unemployment, annoyed by growing economic disparities and put upon by foreign competition that continues to draw manufacturing jobs to Asian competitors.
The Obama campaign strategy is increasingly likely to be based on what Republicans call “class warfare”, although the Democrats see it as pointing out Republican positions favouring the rich on taxes and social spending, to the detriment of all the rest.
Regardless of how one defines the rhetoric, the 2012 election will look more like a grind ’em out infantry battle from one trench to the next, rather than a lofty appeal to change and hope. DM
Photo: Republican presidential candidates debate. Reuters.
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