Herman Cain has had as bad a week as any presidential contender can have. Not only has the public finally been told that he was the subject of sexual harassment claims while he was CEO of the National Restaurant Associations, but both the candidate and his campaign have suffered what can only be termed a meltdown in terms of their inept responses to the scandal. More charges are now starting to surface, and Cain and his handlers have only made things worse by not keeping their story straight, lashing out at his rivals and making bogus threats about suing the Politico website that broke the story. But, as Alana wrote earlier today, 70 percent of Republicans polled say the issue won’t influence their voting. That’s a huge majority, and it is reflected in other polls in which the percentage of those supporting Cain’s candidacy has held relatively steady despite his recent difficulties.
All that has led many observers to conclude that Cain is not merely a strong candidate but is actually bulletproof to charges that would destroy other men’s hopes. But while there is good reason to think that way, I have a suspicion the 70 percent number is slightly deceptive. While many Republicans may not like being told by aggressive media that one of their heroes has feet of clay, the idea that there will be no long term slippage as a result of both the story and Cain’s cranky reaction to it requires a leap of faith that is not justified under the circumstances. The Politico story may be the start of an avalanche of stories about Cain’s life and background — exactly the sort of media scrutiny both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have been subjected to and which Cain has avoided until now — that may paint a different picture of the upstart candidate.
It is true that Cain is not an ordinary candidate. People seem to genuinely like him for his good humor and unpretentious manner. Their affection for him has allowed Cain to get away with the astonishing gaffes that reveal his lack of policy knowledge and poor judgment. Like any good salesman, he is impervious to the facts and to being called out for his mistakes. He simply ignores problems and plows ahead as if they didn’t matter. A lot of Americans are willing to let him get away with all this.
Cain also benefits from having a weak field of Republicans who are competing with him for the conservative vote. For those GOP voters who can’t stand Romney, the alternatives to Cain are not attractive.
But his image as a fresh outsider who wasn’t a politician is a suit of clothes that can get worn out. It may be that the fact we knew little about him other than what he told us was just as important to America’s good opinion of him as that smile and warm personality.
The very fact that his sexual harassment troubles began while he was CEO of the National Restaurant Association should start to clue more people in to the idea that he is more of a Washington insider than he’d like us to think. After all, the NRA is a lobbying group. Serving as its head as he did for several years meant that Cain was pursuing a profession most Americans think is even lower than being a congressman or a journalist.
To date, the major media organizations that have been going over the lives of the other Republican candidates with a fine toothcomb have been giving Cain a pass for some reason. In recent months, we’ve found out about Perry’s hunting camp, Romney’s religious duties in the Mormon church, Michele Bachmann’s headaches and how much Newt Gingrich spends on buying jewelry for his wife. Yet the can of worms that was opened by the Politico story about the harassment charges filed against Cain is the first time the public was allowed a look at his life that was not viewed through the filter of campaign autobiography. It isn’t fun, and Cain should expect a lot more of it in the future.
His problem is that if, as we’ve seen this week, his good humor dissolves into vicious backbiting at the media and his competitors, it is bound to have an impact on his support. Voters who don’t want to admit they are being influenced by the media may also think differently when they are in the privacy of the ballot booth.
As nasty as the business of finding about these candidates may be — and it was enough to cause a strong candidate like Mitch Daniels to refuse to run — the Cain investigation does serve a purpose. The time is long past when politicians’ private lives and peccadilloes were ignored by a compliant press or even opponents. Republicans now need to find every skeleton that is in Herman Cain’s closet, before they get any closer to anointing him as their standard-bearer. As we learn more about him, his bulletproof persona may prove to be as porous as his knowledge of foreign affairs.