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Herman Cain dates the start of his presidential ambitions to a few minutes before 10 o’clock on the evening of 22 January 1999. His first grandchild, Celena, had just been born and as he held her in his arms he was moved by a sense of calling.
He wrote a poem about the experience called Little Faces, signing it The Hermanator:
For a moment, I didn’t know who I was or where,
I could only think of her and so happy to be there.
Born into the world with all the other little faces,
What will we do, to make it a better place?
It’s clear that whatever else Cain does in the next few months, he should stay away from rhyming verse. But that’s just about the only thing that’s clear about Herman Cain. In all other regards, he’s shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable and baffling candidates in the history of American presidential races.
Those qualities have been on full display this week with the eruption of sexual harassment allegations against him. The accusations date back to the 1990s when Cain was head of the National Restaurant Association. Three women, all unnamed former employees, are now known to have complained about inappropriate behaviour that allegedly included invitations back to his hotel room. Two of the women received confidential settlements.
True to form, Cain has dealt with the allegations in a way that is the complete opposite of the crisis PR rulebook. Politico gave him 10 days to respond to their questions, yet when the website broke the story on Sunday night he responded as though it was the first he’d heard about the accusations. In the media hurricane that followed, he began by denying any knowledge of a “settlement”, then memories slowly returned.
“I was able to gradually recall more and more details about what happened 12 years ago,” he told the cable news channel HLN, including what he now called a “separation agreement” with the women. He said one of the women had been paid two or three months salary in the deal – though we now know it was a full year’s remuneration of about $35,000 and $45,000 respectively.
According to the rulebook, mistake number one is to eke out your account of what happened, thus prolonging the media storm. Mistake number two is to change your story, making you look duplicitous. And mistake number three – which he’s also fallen into royally this week – is to blame other people: in Cain’s case his female accuser whose work he snarkily said had not been “up to par”, the press and, most provocatively, his rival in the presidential competition Rick Perry.
“We live in an era when what you say during a crisis is often more important than what you did to cause it in the first place,” says Michael Wissot, a senior strategist with the political consultancy Luntz Global who advised John McCain in his presidential runs in 2000 and 2008. “All this finger-pointing by Cain has merely extended the crisis and got him engaged in petty politics, which is dangerous because the one thing that set him apart was that he was not engaged in petty politics.”
Or rather, not engaged in politics, period. The single most extraordinary part of the Cain story is that he is a frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination without ever having held public office. His formal electoral record so far stretches to an attempt in 2004 to enter Georgia’s state senate in which he didn’t even get past the primaries.
“Historically, there’s no precedent,” says Larry Sabato, at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “There’s a reason that parties don’t nominate people without experience in office and that’s because they don’t react well under a crisis – as we’re seeing this week.”
Another puzzle is that Cain came from the sort of background that you’d expect would have directed him more towards the Democratic or labour movement than the Republicans. As he says in his new book This Is Herman Cain: “I grew up po’, which is even worse than being poor.”
His great-great-grandparents were slaves and his father still worked the fields as a young man before branching out to become a chauffeur. His mother was a maid. Cain was born in Memphis and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, under segregation. He remembers being mischievous – a key trait even as a child – sipping water from the white as well as coloured fountains, and being surprised that they tasted the same.
His identity as a black American came not just from negative experiences of racism but also through positive role models. His university years were spent at Morehouse College, an all-male, all-black institution in Atlanta.
But cutting against that collective identity was the driving ambition of Cain the individualist, or the “CEO of self” to use his own catchphrase. He now derides the overwhelming affiliation of African Americans with the Democratic party as a form of “brainwashing”.
From a young age Cain saw himself as on his own trajectory, free of societal norms. He set his American dream on earning a salary of $20,000 – which he soon surpassed as he rose up the corporate ladder, culminating with his appointment as chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza.
Cain makes a lot on the campaign trail of his time at the fast-food chain, regularly telling supporters: “We turned it around with commonsense principles, and we can turn the country around the same way.”
Up to a point. The company did not go into bankruptcy, it is true, largely because Cain slashed costs and sacked up to 400 workers. But nor did it do roaring trade, remaining a relatively marginal player in the pizza market.
Still, his style of slash-and-burn economics does carry real appeal to the Tea Party-fuelled base of the Republican party. It was Tea Partiers who propelled Cain into politics. In 2005 he did a stint as a motivational speaker for Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing network founded and funded by the oil billionaires, the Koch brothers. Most of Cain’s current campaign team, including Mark Block, the adviser who appeared in a recent political advert in which he smokes a cigarette, came from Americans for Prosperity and share the Kochs’s and the Tea Party movement’s anti-government and anti-tax principles.
“I was thinking Tea Parties before Tea Parties was cool,” Cain once said.
He’s carried those Tea Party credentials with him on to the campaign trail, using them to win over the ranks of right-wing conservatives who are disaffected with the establishment Republican elite.
In the first few months of his candidacy he remained obscure but his impressive performance on the televised Republican debates catapulted his poll ratings. For a candidate who has been vague about policies, the one that stands out is a “9-9-9″ regressive tax policy that abolishes personal income, corporate, estate and other taxes and replaces them with a flat 9% tax on retail sales, 9% individual income tax and 9% business tax to the almost certain detriment of poorer families and benefit of the super rich.
As Jeff Jorgensen, who was one of the first to endorse Cain in the key caucus state of Iowa, puts it: “The fact that he’s not a politician is the biggest factor for me. Politicians got us to this point and it’s not politicians who will get us out of it.”
As Jorgensen suggests, what Cain is not is almost more important than what he is. Crucially, he’s not Mitt Romney, the other Republican frontrunner who angers the right-wing Tea Party movement because he’s too moderate. And he’s certainly not Barack Obama, who he castigates as a “socialist”, though he does have the benefit in some conservatives’ eyes of also being black.
“He’s actually blacker than Obama, Obama’s mother was white,” said Timothy Johnson, founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a network of black conservatives.
By capturing the imagination of a roiled Republican base, Cain has already gone much further than anyone expected. The latest polls put him in the lead, well ahead of Romney, though the full fallout of this week’s shenanigans has yet to be felt.
Wissot says that Luntz Global’s polling data shows Cain performing strongly in several key early states, notably Iowa and South Carolina. “If Cain can weather the sexual harassment allegations and continue to fight off Perry for ownership of the title of Tea Party darling, then he has a chance of winning the nomination.”
But there’s a long way to go yet. A final puzzle is that Cain has virtually no campaign infrastructure in any of those states and his financial war-chest is so small compared to Romney’s or Perry’s that some commentators have wondered whether Cain’s efforts amount to nothing more than an elaborate scheme to sell his book.
As a sign perhaps that things are about to get a little more serious, Cain has reportedly now hired a crisis PR firm. Better late than never. But surely this is not the last of the surprises we’ll enjoy on Cain’s bewildering journey towards the White House.
Key dates in the battle for the presidency
9 November The next national TV debate between the Republican candidates. Will Cain look like damaged goods, or will it be his chance to put this week’s troubles behind him?
10 December The first of three TV debates between the candidates to be staged in Iowa ahead of the crucial opening caucus there.
3 January 2012 And they’re off! The first contest of the nomination process begins with the Iowa caucus in America’s corn-growing heartland. Polls currently show Cain and Romney equal frontrunners
10 January The focus swings to New Hampshire where Romney is way out in front. He will hope that commanding victory here will propel him on to Super Tuesday
21 January On to South Carolina. A big one for Cain this, partly because of its large black population and partly because of its strong Baptist community which suits Cain, who is a pastor in an Atlanta church
6 March Super Tuesday this time round won’t be quite as definitive as in previous presidential years, because fewer states are taking part. But it will still help to separate the sheep from the goats
3 October Denver, Colorado. The first of three televised face-offs between Barack Obama and the Republican nominee (there will also be one vice-presidential debate). A chance to deliver body blows either way
6 November The big day. Will the Republican nominee succeed in doing what Ronald Reagan did to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did to the elder George Bush?
The decision will lie with 538 electors drawn from the 50 states.
Tags: crisis pr
, herman cain
, little faces
, presidential ambitions
, sexual harassment allegations
Categories: The Western Press