The Dark Horse
Herman Cain, the pizza magnate who would be president—the first in a series of Slate looks at the 2012 candidates.
What sort of speech do they get? What do they get when they tune into Cain's radio show? It's a mash-up of Dale Carnegie-esque leadership talk and conservative talk about the Constitution, the socialism of Barack Obama, and the rest of the Democrats' crimes against the individual. His speech in Richmond was a perfect example. "The tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goals," said Cain. "The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach for." It could be the case against Marx, or it could be one of those weekend-long conferences on self-actualization.
This might be because Cain has spent as much time writing and talking about business skills as he's spent talking about politics. He's penned three books, one of which is a standard political epistle, but two of which— Leadership Is Common Sense and Speak As a Leader: Develop the Better Speaker in You—fit snugly on the shelf next to Tony Robbins. Foolish people, he argues, avoid the "A, B, and C factors" that drag them down and pivot to "the D, E, and F factors—the world might appreciate the D, E, and F of something instead of another A, B and C of everything." When I talked to Cain, he accused the Obama administration of falling in that trap as it fumbled from crisis to crisis. "He picked the wrong experts!" said Cain. "Good grief! The wrong experts!"
In his book on public speaking, written after he'd done years of get-motivated speeches, he analyzed his turnaround at Godfather's in terms that sound exactly like what he, and every other Tea Party star, wants to do to Washington. "We discovered that what our loyal customers wanted most was a consistent original crust with their choice of ten different toppings made to order," he wrote. "So we eliminated the other crusts and concentrated on original product … the entire organization was then self-motivated to produce quality consistently, having identified and removed the biggest barrier to do so—too many crusts!"
When I talked to Cain, he put every issue into this framework. Asked about foreign policy, which he doesn't talk about much in speeches, he identified a problem—weakness and slow decision-making—and proposed a solution: gathering up leaders.
"I support the surge in Afghanistan but I would have sent those troops earlier than the president sent them," said Cain. "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 so the first thing that I'd do [if elected] is summon the experts to find out can we win. If the answer is yes, what is it going to take? And I'm not going to broadcast it to our enemies as to when we're going to get out of there."
He restated this, to be clear about how much he saw his job as handing out tasks to smart people. "If the experts—the generals, the joint chiefs of staff—if they believe we can win, I'm not going to tear up the plan they give me," he said. "I'm going to execute the plan. If we can't win, I want to know what we can do to exit with dignity out of that country."
Cain spent some more time explaining his view of the war on terror—"we're going to be in this war forever" —and the Iraq War. "The people of Iraq, they wanted to become a democracy," he said. "If they did not want to become a democracy, I do not think President Bush forced it upon them. Once it was clear that they wanted to become a democracy, President Bush pledged to help them do that. I know enough from the reports that I've read that this is something the Iraqi people wanted."
These are not the issues that got Cain into politics, though. He won that first debate because he was discussing the business he spent his life working with. He eased into electoral politics after mastering public speaking. When Cain doesn't know something, he studies. He trusts the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Media Research Center, and research from Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform. (He supports replacing the income tax with the national consumption Fair Tax.) Is it enough for a Republican presidential candidate to hit Iowa and South Carolina and New Hampshire—he's been to all of them—conversant in the work of the think tanks?
Cain is going to try. He likes to open speeches with a joke at President Obama's expense. He'll recite the opening words of the Declaration of Independence by memory, then he'll point out that he didn't need a teleprompter to do it. He said he had a better grasp on reality than Bill Clinton. Does he have a better grasp of facts than Barack Obama?
"I have been studying this stuff," said Cain. "Now, about the president." His thinks on this. "I try to be nice. This president, I don't think, can discuss any of the things that he says in speeches deeper than on the surface. I can go two and three deep on trying to help people understand where we're coming from, because I've been studying these issues for years."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.