Advancing a Free Society

Will Cain Have a Change of Hart?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Watching Herman Cain’s pronouncement that he’s running but not running – suspending his presidential effort in the aftermath of a series of allegations about his personal life that left zero interest in his “9-9-9” plan – I had a flashback to two other presidential hopefuls from a different time and the same state.

Mr. Cain, meet Pat Schroeder and Gary Hart, a pair of Colorado Democrats who crashed and burned spectacularly in the 1988 presidential sweepstakes.

We’ll get to those two in a moment, but first an explanation as to why Cain opted to “suspend” his campaign, and not pull the plug.

Of course, it allows the former Godfather’ Pizza CEO to get back in the race, should he discover a surprise groundswell in the early-primary states (the latest Des Moines Register Iowa Poll indicates otherwise, with Cain’s numbers shrinking fast.)

But the real reason behind Saturday’s big announcement: money.

As long as his campaign stays on suspension, Cain is still free to take donations. Which guarantees that, whenever the candidate formally calls it a day, he stays out of the red.

But more importantly, it means Cain can continue to capture the names of online donors – presumably, “Cain Train” passengers who’ll want to stay along for the ride on the candidate’s “Plan B” – not a candidacy, but an ongoing conversation about national issues.

Anyway, back to saga of Pat Schroeder and Gary Hart.

In 1988, Schroeder, then a congresswoman from Colorado, was the logical successor to Geraldine Ferraro as the next big thing in gender politics – standard-issue on most Democratic boiler-plate issues, but also a 15-year veteran of the House Armed Services with the unusual stances of wanting to cut American foreign aid by at least 10% and bringing home a good portion of overseas troops (this was before the Berlin Wall fell, mind you).

Women’s groups began lining up money for a Schroeder run. But a one-day network of fundraising parties failed to deliver. And that convinced the congresswoman not to run.

The result: Schroeder, like Cain, found herself standing in front of a gaggle of supporters on a bright, sunny day (Denver for her, Atlanta him), clad in sunglasses and publicly weeping at the expressed thought of her decision to stay out of the race.

Cain didn’t cry, but he might as well have. His statement included the kind of self-pity and accusatory rhetoric that frustrates voters, instead of owning up to the fact his inability to explain a complicated personal life begged the question as to how he could run the federal government, much less a smooth campaign.

And that leads us to the Gary Hart parallel.

You might remember the infamous Monkey Business incident that torpedoed Hart’s candidacy. But you might not recall that the affair didn’t expel Hart, a former Colorado senator, from the race – not for long, at least.

In the aftermath of the infidelity story, Hart did indeed throw in the towel, bitterly ripping into reporters for “dissecting” him (even though, in what in retrospect seems like political suicide by cop, Hart had famously told a New York Times reporter: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anyone wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” (here’s the entire profile, including that unfortunate pull-quote).

Hart’s withdrawal had two consequences: (1) a lot of pop psychology, on the media’s part, that Hart wanted to be Warren Beatty, while his friend Beatty wanted to be Hart; (2) a lot of media guilt over driving Hart out of the race over his personal life – guilt that, four years later, would work to Bill Clinton’s advantage.

But the Hart story doesn’t end there – and we’ll see if Cain can resist the same temptation.

Having dropped out of the race in May 1987, Hart dropped back into it in December of the same year, his rationale being “let the voters decide”.

And he returned to New Hampshire, scene of his surprise win in the 1984 Democratic primary, in search of the old magic.

Accompanied by his wife, Lee, who stood by her unfaithful husband as his faithful companion/talisman/human media shield – just as Cain’s wife, Gloria, chose to stand by her man at his big announcement.

I was a political reporter for the course of the 1988 election. And I attended a Hart campaign event in New Hampshire featuring the two Harts. The candidate, by then a blip in the polls, seemed irrelevant. The wife was a study in not-so-masked pain. All the media wanted to ask was about was the whereabouts of Donna Rice. Had Dead Man Walking been a movie at the time (it didn’t come out in 1995), it would have been the perfect analogy.

Hart received all of 1% in 1988’s Iowa caucuses; he pulled in 4% in New Hampshire – good enough for 7th in the seven-Democratic field. Three-and-a-half weeks later, he was gone for good, withdrawing a second and final time from the Democrats’ contest.

Cain will receive better than 1% of the Iowa vote, but gone are the days when he was at the front of the pack. The latest WMUR/UNH poll has him tied for fifth in New Hampshire, with the same 4% that Hart received.

F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t work the campaign trails, which perhaps explains why there are second acts in politics.

But a second act in the same election? Not if Cain thinks with his head, not his Hart.