The most intriguing question raised by the first presidential debate in Greenville, S.C. involves the way Republicans will characterize the surprising showing of Herman Cain. Does the business leader and talk radio host represent the next Ronald Reagan --or the second coming of Alan Keyes?
Cain’s fans and supporters cite the reaction to Thursday night’s encounter to stress the Reaganesque qualities of their champion. According to a focus group conducted by Fox News analyst Frank Luntz, Cain gained more support from his self-assured and capable performance than any other candidate in the 35 debates the pollster has covered. Among 29 participants, only one favored Cain prior to the telecast; afterwards, a clear majority selected him as their “first choice” among presidential possibilities. (Most of the heavyweights ducked the debate.)
Like Reagan, Cain combines genial temperament, folksy style and a relaxed and effortless comfort before the camera to reassure those who worry about his lack of government experience. His dismissive response to the emphasis on a substantive political track record (“How’s that workin’ out for you?”) drew one of the evening’s most positive responses. When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966 he billed himself as “the citizen candidate”; Cain can also promote himself as part of the solution, while professional politicos are part of the problem.
Skeptics insist that Reagan boasted important advantages Cain can never match: even before that first race, the Gipper had become a popular household name through his long career in Hollywood. By the time Reagan ran for president, he could point to two successful terms as chief executive of the Golden State, during which he acquired considerable political savvy and, even more importantly, a gifted, world-class staff—many of whom followed him to the White House. Cain’s campaign remains disorganized and rudimentary, inspired by a forlorn belief that ground troops will rally magically to the cause as soon as they’ve been exposed to the candidate’s incandescent eloquence.
Cain’s detractors liken his long-shot campaign to a three-time presidential loser and notorious vanity candidate who similarly (and disastrously) relied on his communication skills: Alan Keyes. His debate performances always grabbed attention (including an incident in 1996 when Atlanta police blocked his attempt to rush the stage of a candidate forum to which he’d been disinvited), but he gained no traction in terms of votes or delegates. Some Republicans encouraged Keyes out of a desperate and forlorn desire to promote telegenic black conservatives; Cain’s critics say he exploits that same hunger, even as logic dictates that his chances of victory remain remote.
But the Keyes analogy makes little sense. Herman has been a guest on my radio show several times, and at 66, he has compiled a genuinely dazzling record of corporate success, with top executive positions at Pillsbury, Burger King and Godfather Pizza. Keyes could point only to minor diplomatic appointments and failed campaigns, with no more executive experience than Barack Obama. Cain’s business background (including chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City) and proven head for numbers (he holds a mathematics degree from Morehouse College and a master’s in computer science from Purdue) make him a plausible candidate at a time of economic stress and looming fiscal catastrophe. His followers, citing his leadership of Godfather Pizza, bill Herman as “the Godfather of Common Sense”; on the other hand, the phrases “common sense” and “Alan Keyes” have never appeared together in the same sentence.
Despite the flurry of attention to Cain’s candidacy, he stands scant chance of winning a major primary or caucus. His modest personal fortune provides a comfortable life for himself and his family but, unlike other business leaders pursuing the presidency (Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, John Huntsman) he can’t pump tens of millions of dollars into funding his own campaign. The expected addition of better-known contenders in the next few weeks (almost certainly including Newt Gingrich and perhaps Mitch Daniels and Michele Bachmann) means that he’ll never again be able to steal the show in future debates the way he did in this initial outing (against Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and the enigmatic Gary Johnson).
Still, Herman Cain could well play a significant role in building a stronger GOP for 2012 and beyond. While many commentators sneered and snickered at the South Carolina debate (my Daily Beast colleague Matt Latimer compared it to “a low-budget Star Trek convention where only the guy who played Dr. McCoy and a bunch of extras bothered to show up”) they ignored a truly historic, even epic aspect of this event.
In South Carolina – the home of secession, John C. Calhoun, Strom Thurmond, and the long-fluttering Stars and Bars over the state Capitol building – a black guy won in a landslide with a nearly all-white focus group of local Republicans.
This provides potent counter-evidence to the tired Democratic charge that conservatives – particularly Southern conservatives – dislike Obama primarily because he’s African-American. In fact, right-wingers don’t hate the president’s guts because he’s black: they despise him because he’s liberal—an old-fashioned, free-spending, big government lefty. They didn’t like Bill Clinton any better (does anyone remember impeachment?) despite his notably lighter complexion. To paraphrase Cain’s fellow Georgian (and fellow Morehouse graduate): conservatives care more about the content of his character (or his political ideology) than they do about the color of his skin.
Of course, some cynics suggest that any Republican attempt to draw support from African-Americans represents a distracting waste of time and resources, given the virtual certainty that Obama will once again carry the black vote by vast margins. This argument, however, ignores the undeniable fact that the African American vote amounts to such a substantial share of the overall electorate (13 percent in 2008) that even small shifts could bring big consequences.
If John McCain had performed as well as George W. Bush performed among black voters in 2004 (winning 11 percent instead of 4 percent), it would have brought nearly a million extra votes to his popular vote total, and swayed desperately close outcomes in major battlegrounds carried by Obama, including Virginia and North Carolina. Part of the untold story of the Republican House victory last year involves more than doubling the GOP percentage of the black vote, and electing two new African-American Republican congressmen. The very survival of the party depends on further efforts to undermine Democratic efforts to portray the GOP as a bigoted, whites-only political movement.
In primary seasons without an incumbent president or dominant frontrunner, some little-known “fresh face” reliably emerges out of nowhere to capture media attention and fleeting public fascination. For the Democrats, Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas played that role in 1992, as did Vermont governor Howard Dean in 2004. Among Republicans, John Anderson became a brief press obsession in 1980 (leading to his ill-considered independent candidacy), as did Steve Forbes in ’96, or Ron Paul last time.
In this campaign, the most likely candidates to seize the mantle of dynamic, colorful outsider (with no real chance of victory) are Herman Cain – and Donald Trump. Is there any real question which of these two corporate executives presents a more positive image for the party? Some of Cain’s backers object to the tendency of bloggers to anoint their candidate “Pizza Man” in tribute to his Godfather success. They should, rather, welcome the designation and affirm the notion that when it comes to spicing up the Republican future, PIZZA MAN: HE DELIVERS.
This column originally appeared in The Daily Beast on May 6, 2011.