A week from now, the Internet may still be buzzing over what did and didn’t transpire at the National Restaurant Association under Herman Cain’s watch.
Such is the nature of political controversies: a firestorm can subside within days; but poorly contained, or with more fuel added to the fire, it can persist – sometimes, with fatal results.
Two days into the story, here are four takeaways for those interested in this sort of political brouhaha:
- Unconventional Campaigns Still Need Conventional Damage Control. Forget about the “did he or didn’t he” aspect of this matter – that won’t become any clearer until documents are released or Cain’s past accusers come forward. What’s troublesome is Cain had 10 days to prepare for the Politico bombshell, yet still reacted to it clumsily when the allegations surfaced – his explanation varying as the day progressed. That doesn’t mean Cain is dishonest or purposely hiding something. But it does keep the story going. The conventional rules of political damage control dictate: (a) having one story and sticking to it; (b) presenting a united front; (c) giving the press one shot at asking questions, then moving on. Cain didn’t opt for such a strategy, befitting his unconventional campaign (little field organization in key states; provocative ads featuring cigarette-smoking staffers). For a candidate who’s moved to the front of the pack by playing up his non-politicians’ persona, this is one case where defying convention backfired. And it begs the question: is Cain in the race to win, or just be whimsical?
- Both Ideologies Are Reckless With Race. Cain is the only black candidate in the GOP field. As such, it didn’t take long for a story about workplace behavior to be confused with race – the surprise being that the “race card” was dealt by leading voices on the right. Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter had this to say on Fox News’ “Geraldo At Large”: “It’s outrageous the way liberals treat a black conservative. This is another high-tech lynching . . . Nothing liberals fear more than a black conservative. Ask Allen West. Ask Michael Steele. Ask Clarence Thomas. And even what the allegations are here, I mean, just shows you how the civil-rights juggernaut has gone off the rails. The idea of civil rights laws to begin with ironically was to protect blacks from Democrats from the South who won’t protect them. Now it’s you know, white women from Scarsdale who say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that he called me honey.’” Seriously? For years, the right has complained – correctly so – that the left dishonestly uses Barack Obama’s racial identity to demonize honest partisan differences. It’s a shame to see conservative likewise stoop to conquer by interjecting race where it has no role.
- Once Again, the Fourth Estate Creates a First-Class Mess. Yes, in the spirit of “fair and balanced”, Politico waited 10 days before running the Cain story. However, it also relied upon anonymous sources, which sent Cain defenders into a tizzy. And the timing – the hit piece coming after Cain had gone from afterthought to frontrunner in the primary field – led to rampant speculation as to who was peddling the dirt. Years ago, the Los Angeles Times faced an angry backlash after running an article, shortly before California’s recall election, alleging that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a habitual groper. Politico now gets to weather a similar storm – what’s being described as a “media harassment scandal”. Why does this matter? Because trust in the political system and trust in the media’s coverage of politics go hand in hand.
- The Road to the Republican Nomination Remains Wide Open. On Tuesday, Cain chose to stay in Washington and engage in damage control rather than travel to Pella, Iowa, where five other GOP hopefuls were pitching their jobs plans. Cain hasn’t exactly been a boost to the Hawkeye economy – only four paid staffers in the staff, all of who came on board in June. Nevertheless, the latest Iowa Poll has Cain at 23%, Mitt Romney at 22% (Romney, btw, also skipping Tuesday’s Iowa gathering), and some fella named “Undecided” in third place with 15%. Two months ago, a different Iowa survey had Romney in the same no. 2 spot, but otherwise a different pecking order of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Cain – at a mere 7%. Anyone care to guess where Iowa will be two months from now? Much like the Politico story, speculating won’t do you much good.