Herman Cain‘s decision to suspend his campaign removes the remote but tantalising prospect of a 2012 battle for the White House fought between two African-American candidates.
Barack Obama winning the presidency three years ago was a major breakthrough in race relations in America. And grassroots Republicans, a party dominated by whites, enthusiastically endorsing Cain, even if only for a few weeks, represented another big step.
Although he said he was suspending rather than ending his campaign, it is over. There is no way back. His poll numbers have plummeted, his donations are drying up and there is no time left for a comeback.
His refusal to declare his campaign over and talk about a “Plan B” reflects his reluctance to see his White House dream end. He has been tenacious over the last few weeks, refusing to leave the race in spite of mounting sex allegations and foreign policy gaffes that would have floored other candidates. It must be galling for him to have come so close, only to see it all slip away.
That is why he has refused to have a clean break and why he talks about a plan B, as a sort of ambassador for the Tea Party movement – a role that would keep him in the public eye, with a series of speaking engagements and a new website. But it is not the same as being a contender – and frontrunner – in the Republican presidential contest.
He was from the start one of the unlikeliest candidates in the race. A former pizza mogul, he has never held public office, and, as he demonstrated over and over again, he had only a loose grasp of policy issues, especially foreign affairs.
In spite of this, his lead soared in the polls in the autumn, but fell in the face of sex allegations. How his campaign team dealt with these allegations will be studied in the future by politicians, campaign staff and political scientists. His is a dramatic example of how not to deal with a political crisis, running one of the most inept damage-limitation exercises in recent US political history.
Cain began with outright denials, only to revise his comments hours later. He claimed memory lapses, only to disclose, again within hours, key details. It was not the allegations that hurt him – the Republicans liked him so much they were largely prepared to forgive or overlook them – but his shiftiness in dealing with them.
Grassroots members, interviewed at random at a campaign event earlier this week, still listed him as among their preferred choice but no longer saw him as a credible candidate capable of beating Obama. One said she did not mind too much that he had had an affair but she did mind if he was lying about it.
Cain, 65, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up in Georgia. Although relatively poor, he completed a college education and worked himself up through the business world, serving as chief executive of the Godfather’s pizza chain from 1986 to 1996, as well as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. He was chief executive of the National Restaurant Association, based in Washington, a fateful period from which the allegations of sexual harassment emerged.
He had a brief shot at the presidency and stood unsuccessfully for the Senate. In May this year, he put himself forward again for a White House run. At first, this was met with cynicism: was he serious about the presidency or was it just a good ruse to promote his book? Initially, the cynical view seemed to be borne out as he toured round not the traditional key early voting states but followed an itinerary that appeared more like a national book tour.
His appeal was that he was fresh, likeable and able to connect with the public in a way that stiff candidates such as Mitt Romney have never shown themselves capable of. And he had a sense of humour, ensuring that his speeches drew big crowds that contrasted with a thinning out when poorer speakers such as Texas governor Rick Perry got to their feet.
Above all, he was a conservatives’ conservative, regarded by the Tea Party movement as one of their own, and, crucially, enjoyed the tacit support of the multimillionaire, rightwing Koch brothers. “I am the Koch brothers brother from another mother,” he told a conservative conference.
Although race remains a major problem in America, Cain’s popularity is testimony to how much Obama’s election has changed the country. Cain’s colour was almost never an issue. He provoked arguments about tax, about his lack of knowledge on Libya, China and the Taliban, about bad taste jokes, but hardly ever about race.
He achieved front-runner status in the Republican party, so often characterised as the party to which a whiff of racism clings. He rejected the African-American label. “I don’t use African-American, because I’m American, I’m black and I’m conservative,” he said. “I feel more of an affinity for America than I do for Africa.”
Party members, almost all white, stood in line by the hundreds for him to sign copies of his book or jumped to their feet to give him repeated standing ovations during his speeches.
His slogan was “9-9-9″, a pledge to simplify the tax rate to 9% for income, corporate and sales tax. It was one of the few new ideas to emerge from the race. But economists, as well as rivals, dismissed it as unworkable. And Cain began to use it as a shield, retreating to 9-9-9 when stumped by a policy question or even when faced with sex allegations.
He found himself in trouble when he suggested in a presidential debate – a forum that helped propel him in the polls – that he would not want to have Muslims in his cabinet, suggesting they would be untrustworthy. It created an outcry but did him little harm with the Republican grassroots.
The first of the sex allegations emerged on 31 October, reported by Politico, at a time when he was leading polls nationally and in the key early states. Politico said two women claimed they were sexually harassed by him while they worked at the National Restaurant Association. Cain was in Washington the following day and was pursued by packs of journalists. His first response was to deny any knowledge but then changed his approach. He remembered one incident but not the other.
Conventional campaign wisdom for dealing with such crises is to get all the information out as quickly as possible: it is often not the incidents but the cover-up that can prove fatal. Cain, running a shoe-string campaign, bucked this. He allowed the sex stories to run on and on, with new bits seeping out almost daily. Even when he himself vowed to stop addressing it, he could not help giving yet one more interview.
One of the women went public, and then the other. In spite of this, Cain survived, many of his supporters insisting that these were just allegations. But it became harder on Monday this week when Ginger White, an Atlanta businesswoman, did two interviews with local television stations in Georgia, claiming she had had a 13-year affair with him. Cain insisted she was only a friend and that there had been no sex involved. She provided phone records to show scores of text messages and calls, and said he had helped her financially. He admitted he had helped her financially and also that he had not told his wife Gloria about the friendship.
His position in the polls dropped dramatically in the last week and donations to his campaign have been drying up.
, herman cain
, policy gaffes
, race relations in america
, sex allegations
, speaking engagements
Categories: The Western Press