Herman Cain’s presidential campaign came to an unceremonious conclusion yesterday, leaving some of his last-ditch supporters blaming the media for his demise. Defiant and bombastic to the end, he exited denying the accusations of personal misbehavior that had sunk him while claiming politics is a “dirty game.”
But the conclusion to his attempt to win the White House actually illustrated that for all of its seeming irrationality and foolishness, the process by which we elect presidents isn’t so crazy after all. Cain’s inability to survive the scrutiny that must accompany such lofty ambitions proves that at least in this instance, the system worked.
In the coming days, his former rivals who understandably hope to win the votes of some of his supporters will extravagantly praise Cain. But let’s not be fooled by the talk of Cain’s “courage” and “boldness” or the idea there was something praiseworthy about having a person with no experience in government parachute into the Oval Office.
That a man who was so bereft of knowledge of important issues and clearly lacking the ability to defend his poorly thought out positions was treated as a serious contender even for a few weeks must be considered an impressive achievement. But it is a consoling thought that, at least in this instance, the manner in which we choose presidential nominees is sufficiently rigorous that a Herman Cain could not make it to the Iowa caucuses before being revealed as an unsavory character who did not deserve the attention we showered upon him the last six months.
The most interesting thing about Cain was not his personal foibles, his simplistic tax plan or even his astounding ignorance of foreign policy that grew to comical proportions as the campaign went on. Rather, it was his arrogance. While it must be conceded that anyone who even thinks of running for the presidency must be possessed of a very healthy ego, it takes a special kind of arrogance to think yourself ready for the White House even though you know nothing about a host of important issues and are carrying around personal baggage bound to be revealed.
His rise was the result of a long summer and fall of debates during which his unflappable charm was highlighted. It was also testimony to the contempt in which most voters hold career politicians these days that they were momentarily seduced by the idea a businessman could run the country better than one of them. Of course, as most of us learned when his long tenure at the National Restaurant Association became newsworthy, he spent as much time as a Washington lobbyist as he did as an entrepreneur. But the mere fact that he had never held elective office was treated as a virtue rather than a defect.
But there are reasons why only those who have tried and succeeded at politics are generally considered worthy of consideration for the presidency. One is that as much as Republicans rightly value the private sector over the public, experience in running a government of some kind is not the same thing as operating a business. Another is that running for office is good training for the rigors of the presidency. It also provides a rough and often imperfect vetting process.
In an earlier era, someone like Cain would not have been treated as a serious candidate for the presidency for even a moment, because the political parties vetted candidates themselves. We need not mourn the death of the proverbial smoke-filled room in which party bosses played kingmakers to understand such doings were likely to filter out a buffoon like Cain. The weakness of contemporary party structures means this role must now be played by the media. That is a problematic formulation that often gives too much power to journalists who are often biased and as capable of being seduced by a public relations phenomenon as anyone else. The failure of the press to air Barack Obama’s flaws, which though different from Cain’s were just as glaring, is an example of how this system can spectacularly fail.
But rather than blame the media for Cain’s fall, we should be congratulating it. It says something not very flattering about Republicans that so many of them were so desperate for a fresh conservative face they actually thought it was not insane to hand the reins of power to a person who was a foreign policy ignoramus and who didn’t know the difference between “pro-life” and “choice” when it came to abortion.
His collapse was the result of a combination of factors, but it is a small victory for rationality that by the time Cain withdrew, most Republicans understood it was impossible to envision him as a commander-in-chief. While Herman Cain is surely not the last unqualified person to have a chance to win the presidency, let us at least be thankful this farce is now concluded.