In 2005, author Malcolm Gladwell penned a book called Blink, which helped popularize a concept known as “rapid cognition” — the art of processing amorphous information within seconds to arrive at a semi-informed decision. The idea seems an apt way to characterize an e-mail I received over the weekend from an acquaintance describing a profound sense of dejection with Barack Obama, whom he enthusiastically supported in 2008.
Declaring that the “O Kool-Aid is officially out of my system,” this individual went on to speak borderline effusively about none other than Herman Cain, the recently declared GOP candidate who appeared on a Sunday morning political talk show. This person even went so far as to voice a willingness to help Cain raise money if he prevailed in his quest to win the Republican nomination.
Such is the state of play in a crowded yet still fluid Republican primary that Cain — a business executive and Morehouse College alumni — appears to be gaining momentum with each passing week. The man best known as the former head of Godfather’s Pizza is now garnering attention across the political spectrum.
Although he still lags in national polls, ‘The Hermanator’ is proving surprisingly resilient in a wide-open field. Cain is gaining traction in the all-important early voting redoubt of Iowa, and he’s outpolling native son Newt Gingrich in their home state of Georgia.
The former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive also generates more enthusiasm than any of the other more easily identifiable candidates for the GOP nomination.
While it is far too early to make any early predictions, it has become evident that Cain’s improbable candidacy is less quixotic than it appeared just months ago. The dynamics underpinning Cain’s quiet but indefatigable ascendancy lend themselves to three broad takeaways:
The overwhelming majority of grassroots conservatives and Tea Party members are neither racists, bigots or reflexively anti-minority. With the possible exception of a certain former governor and Alaskan export who shall go unnamed, two of the most popular figures within the conservative movement are Cain and Allen West. Both are black men from humble beginnings; both are at the top of Republican voters’ presidential Dream Ticket.
Cain has raised eyebrows with some off-color remarks about race, which certainly runs the risk of backfiring. But it simultaneously demonstrates how amenable most conservatives are — indeed, have always been, to the idea of black male autonomy (and for evidence of this, look no further than George W. Bush’s administration, which was more racially diverse than Bill “The First Black President” Clinton).
Cain’s detractors like to invoke the fate of former RNC Chairman Michael Steele when discussing Cain’s chances, but the comparison is flawed, to say the least. Steele was undone by the weight of “numerous unforced errors”:http://www.thegrio.com/politics/steeles-rocky-tenure-at-rnc-leaves-mixed-legacy.php; at least for the moment, Cain is building steady support among GOP primary voters that may hold the key to his success.
Grassroots Republicans are in a ferociously anti-establishment state of mind. This is playing to Cain’s advantage as a Washington outsider, and contrasts sharply with establishment favorites with lengthy political resumes, such as Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty. Romney is the putative front-runner, but he carries the dubious distinction of being the only candidate to create health care legislation virtually identical to the one signed into law in 2009 by President Obama.
For his part, Cain fills several voids: a business-friendly former executive and a straight shooter without a checkered paper trail of problematic votes and policy decisions.
Whatever his chances, Cain is clearly not the second coming of Alan Keyes. The comparisons between Cain and Keyes are near-irresistible, but important distinctions separate the two. Cain’s resume is steeped in business, while Keyes is a career public servant and perennial political gadfly. The only characteristic shared in common by the two men is their skin pigmentation; any comparisons — or nonsensical claims of “plantation politics” are way off base.
All of which is not to argue that Cain is on a glide path to the GOP nomination. His recent gaffe on Israel exposed his lack of foreign policy bonafides, which could be a fatal mistake for anyone seeking to earn votes in a party that ranks national security high on its list of candidate’s competencies. As John J. Miller wrote recently in The National Review, some of Cain’s refreshing candor can look “amateurish” when subjected to the klieg lights of an intense campaign. And Shelby Steele perhaps said it best when he wrote about about President Obama’s status as a potent cultural avatar that “validates the American democratic experiment.”
Nonetheless, the first primary is still more than half a year away, and as the 2008 election cycle vividly illustrated, surreal things can happen on the way to a major party convention. Assumptions are upended, and conventional wisdom can be disproven in the blink of an eye. With a faltering economy, anxious voters are looking for competent, bold — and fresh — leadership. In a field where many of the major contenders are encumbered by the weight of their own baggage, one shouldn’t be surprised if Herman Cain ends up floating to the top.