As Monday’s Washington Post reported, “Herman Cain is on a roll” – sort of.
After being edged out of August’s presidential primary spotlight by Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Cain — the gospel-singing, talk-radio-hosting former Kansas City Fed director and Godfather’s Pizza CEO — has surged in September with a high-profile win in the Florida GOP’s presidential straw poll, taking 37 percent of the vote and almost doubling the combined total of the presumptive frontrunners, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But while Cain can publicly savor an underdog win that will propel him into the next two Republican debates set for October, he might privately wonder if his candidacy would have broken through if he’d stayed focused on his business experience and he’d presented himself as a mainstream candidate with bold ideas about how to fundamentally fix the stagnant economy, instead of spending the summer Muslim-baiting, endorsing Donald Trump’s birther conspiracies, and demonstrating a lack of foreign policy cred.
Now, no matter how well he does in future debates, it’ll be tough for him to be taken seriously.
And black Republicans will have to wonder if Cain squandered an opportunity to be the conduit through which African Americans — who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats — began migrating to the GOP. Instead, Cain’s just a convenient receptacle for “none of the above” protest votes of Republicans who are dissatisfied with Perry and Romney—and he won’t fundamentally alter the black political landscape.
It could have been different.
When I wrote in June that Cain should pattern himself after the GOP’s 1996 vice presidential nominee, the late Rep. Jack Kemp—a white politician who championed black economic development—I didn’t know he was listening. But in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Cain name-checked Kemp and floated the concept of “enterprise zones” to boost entrepreneurship in minority communities—it’s an old Kemp idea.
In recent debates, Cain also unveiled his 9-9-9 plan that resonates with hard-core conservatives and sounds at least coherent and cohesive to less ideological voters. He introduces it with a catchy tithing reference that’s meant to please a Christian audience, saying that “if 10 percent is good enough for God, then nine percent should be just fine for the federal government.”
9-9-9, which contains a flat nine percent corporate tax, a nine percent individual income tax, a nine percent national sales tax and looks to eliminate all capital gains taxes, would be a fairly radical change and probably wouldn’t get through Congress. But in the short run, the plan’s primary benefit — for Cain, at least — is that it strengthens the story that Cain wants to tell: that he’s a solutions-oriented businessman, not a politician.
But Cain took too long to start playing to his strengths. He’s gained traction among voters who’ve seen him debate and like his plain-spoken style. But he lost momentum — and credibility — after spending the summer rolling out slogans like “stupid people are ruining America” in reference to President Barack Obama and anyone who’s more liberal than he is.
He never backed off of his position that he wouldn’t want to appoint Muslim Americans to his administration because he believed that they might try to “force their Shari’a law on the rest us.” And he declared that Obama wasn’t a “real black man.”
On Afghanistan Cain says: “I would have sent those troops earlier than the president sent them. I don’t know, because I’m not privy to all of the intelligence, if we can win in Afghanistan. If we can, then I would have never announced a withdrawal date…And I’m not going to broadcast it to our enemies as to when we’re going to get out of there.”
In short, he’s against whatever Obama’s for.
Which puts him well within the prevailing winds of Republican politics. Even Rush Limbaugh jumped on the bandwagon after Cain’s straw poll win, saying that if he won, Cain would become the first “authentically” black president — a dis that amuses Limbaugh listeners, and that won’t sell with black voters of any political stripe. But since Cain isn’t likely to be the GOP nominee and his pitch relies heavily on the premise that “Obama = bad,” he’s probably won’t even be the bridge over which significant numbers of black voters cross the aisle to the Republican side.
So while Cain would argue that that he wants to appeal to all Americans—not just black voters—he comes out of his Florida win still an underdog, but one who’s tainted with past statements that put him outside of the mainstream and make him unpalatable to black voters who might otherwise be dissatisfied with Obama, but who aren’t interested in any of the alternatives.
If that’s the case, then what purpose does Cain really serve? Before Cain, black Republicans didn’t have a standard-bearer. Now? They still don’t.
David Swerdlick’s writing has appeared in the New York Daily News, the American Prospect, and NPR.com. Follow him on Twitter.