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November 7, 2011

Derailing the Cain Train

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Seems like it always come down to a sex scandal. Herman Cain, the gospel-singing, core conservative, and former pizza chain CEO, has seen his national popularity among GOP and Tea Party voters rocket since September.


Thanks in large measure to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s flip-flops and apparent inability to connect with Republican primary voters, Mr. Cain has captured the hearts of many. He speaks plainly, seemingly without the familiar political guile of other candidates.


His solutions to problems, while admittedly simplistic, allow him to stick to a practiced script when confronted by his peers or the media. Considering his growing national status, he has eschewed the typical campaign playbook employed by past GOP presidential candidates.


Instead of employing slick talking heads and policy advisors, Mr. Cain has surrounded himself with guys like him, most notably Chief of Staff Mark Block. Mr. Block’s most significant contribution has been as the cigarette-smoking face of the most recent Cain Internet advertisement. He tells us to vote for Herman Cain and then blows smoke in our face.


Maybe not the best way to get a vote, unless you happen to sell tobacco leaves to Phillip Morris.


So, this is the level of Mr. Cain’s professional political staff. Fun for sure, but questions remain about how effective they really are.


With this as the background, the first juicy sex scandal of the 2012 campaign season has erupted. According to an anonymous complaint, Internet news outlet is reporting that when he served as president of the National Restaurant Association, two separate women filed sexual harassment allegations against him.


One of these accusers was granted a financial settlement, which is a big deal anywhere, but an even bigger deal for a national government relations firm like the restaurant association, which lobbies on behalf of restaurants across the country, influencing policy makers on Capitol Hill.


Within hours of the allegation surfacing, conservative talking head Rush Limbaugh was claiming the charge a fabrication of the liberal media, an attempt to smear a credible conservative voice for the presidency.


Other conservatives have now joined the chorus, including Fox News commentator Sean Hannity and radio host Laura Ingraham. To hear them tell it, this is just Anita Hill versus Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas all over again.


In the early hours of the burgeoning scandal, it seemed possible that the fanatic conservatives might be right. Herman Cain quickly sought the spotlight to dispel these rumors, appearing on Fox News to deny any knowledge of the allegations and a financial settlement.


Thinking that might not have been quite enough, the Cain Train scheduled their man to give a speech at the National Press Club, the non-partisan but very well-respected platform from which one communicates with the national news media.


This time, Herman Cain acknowledged the “false” allegations and denied any knowledge of an alleged settlement. In a unique twist for a sex scandal denial, Mr. Cain broke into a gospel song at the conclusion of his remarks, his deep bass thundering out lyrics about his soul saving acceptance of the Lord as his Savior. How could you not believe a guy who closes his defense with a song about Jesus?


In an all-too-familiar turn-about reminiscent of past scandals, later Mr. Cain fully reversed course. On the PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff, he admitted that he did recall a financial settlement, but brushed off the idea of a settlement, saying instead his general counsel had said it was like a “severance” payment.


His own words from the PBS interview say it best: “I was aware that an agreement was reached. The word ‘settlement’ versus the word ‘agreement’ you know, I’m not sure what they called it. I know that there was some sort of agreement, but because it ended up being minimal, they didn’t have to bring it to me. My general counsel and the head of human resources had the authority to resolve this thing.”


That is not the commentary of a straight-talker, a guileless political outsider untainted by years of insider disease in Washington. This statement is nonsensical blather from a practiced double-speaker.


Tea Party and traditional conservatives clearly are not satisfied with the candidate field in their primary. Mitt Romney is either too Mormon or too liberal; Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems unable to express an opinion around the foot shoved in his mouth; Texas Congressman Ron Paul is unelectable, and Minnesota Congressman Michelle Bachmann, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich (GA) and former U. S. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) all seem not ready for prime time.


Now, their favorite son might be headed for the damaged goods pile, a Christian values candidate the victim of the sin of dishonesty. It will be interesting to see if conservatives continue to offer Mr. Cain a pass on this basic issue of honest disclosure.


If it does go off the rails, the candidate’s failure to disclose the truth when he had the chance will be what ultimately derails the Cain Train.


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