The news that Herman Cain is “reassessing” his candidacy in the wake of a new sexual scandal has predictably set off a wave of speculation as to which of the other Republican contenders will benefit the most from his withdrawal, if that’s what he decides to do. Most observers have jumped to the conclusion that the big winner will be Newt Gingrich. He has been competing for some of the Tea Party/social conservative support and had already been the beneficiary of the precipitous slide in support for Cain after his foreign policy gaffes and sexual harassment charges eroded his standing in the polls. But one outlier on this question is the Washington Examiner’s Phil Klein, who writes today that Mitt Romney might actually gain some traction from the Cain collapse.
Klein’s reasoning is that dismay about Cain’s alleged conduct on the part of Christian conservatives — a factor that may weigh heavily in Cain’s decision to carry on — may bring renewed attention to the issue of moral probity in a potential president. If so, that stands to help Romney, a pillar of rectitude who has been married to the same woman for 42 years, and will remind voters of Gingrich’s well-known record of infidelity during his first two marriages. That’s not an unreasonable theory, but there are two big problems with it. One is, past transgressions don’t impact voters in the same way as fresh revelations. The other is, as we discussed last week, a narrative of redemption seems to be more popular these days than one of unblemished virtue.
The fact that Gingrich led the impeachment of President Clinton on a perjury charge about a sexual indiscretion while simultaneously carrying on an affair with the woman who would become his third wife was an act of egregious public hypocrisy. But 13 years is a lifetime in politics, and the “new” Gingrich we have seen this year is a man who has, we are told, found faith and contentment in a happy marriage and life as a grandfather. Few seem to hold his past against him today.
Cain’s affair, combined with the sexual harassment charges, presents a very different picture. While his die-hard backers may claim all these women are liars, even many of those sympathetic to Cain are beginning to think there may be some fire amid all that smoke. Having presented himself to the country as a successful businessman who was also an upright family man, it’s too late to recast his image as a redeemed sinner in the way Gingrich has done. Whether or not he drops out now, Cain, who was falling fast in public opinion surveys even before this latest problem, is almost certainly toast.
It is possible that some social conservatives might start to re-evaluate Romney and see him in a better light after their sorry experiment with Cain. But unless Gingrich’s reformed wrongdoer story is revealed as fraudulent, it isn’t likely Romney will gain much of an advantage. Indeed, the only relatively fresh personal “scandal” attached to Gingrich is the story that broke over the summer about his exorbitant purchases of jewelry for his wife at Tiffany’s. No doubt some sober souls will think a man who spends that kind of money on baubles ought not to be entrusted with the Treasury of the United States, but the story also reinforced his redemption narrative as it paints him as a philanderer who has been transformed into a lovesick spouse. Fair or not, that is exactly the sort of thing our contemporary popular culture values far above Romney’s lifetime of fidelity and faith.
Romney’s problem remains the fact that he is still seen by most on the right as a heretic who tilted to the left on abortion during his career in Bay State politics only to re-emerge as a conservative when he decided to run for president. Gingrich has taken stands on issues like health care, entitlement reform and the environment that deviated even further from conservative orthodoxy. But the obsession with stopping Romney has led many on the right to grant Gingrich the absolution they deny to his competitor.
Gingrich’s undisciplined character may well cause his candidacy to implode like others who have risen to the top this year. But the idea that Romney will defeat him on the basis of a clearly superior moral character is not one that is likely to be sustained by the voters.