Herman Cain's political career began when he defeated Bill Clinton on live television. If you missed it—and it was 17 years ago—it happened when the president was making one of the last blitzes for his health care reform plan, and was holding town-hall-style meetings to explain how mandating employer-based coverage would work.
Cain got a question in. He'd been a turnaround artist at Pillsbury, working with Burger King, and in 1986 he'd been put in command of the failing Godfather's Pizza franchise. He saved it with triage, closing 250 of around 800 restaurants, before leading an investor group that bought the franchise and put him in charge. By the time he met Clinton, he had been elected president of the National Restaurant Association. This explained some of his confidence as he lit into his president.
"On behalf of all of those business owners that are in a situation similar to mine," asked Cain, "my question is, quite simply, if I'm forced to do this what will I tell those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?"
"Well, wait a minute," said Clinton, attempting a charm offensive. "Let's ask—let's talk a minute about what you would have to do." The employer mandate would add only 2 percent to Cain's costs, Clinton argued, and Cain could just charge more for pizza.
"I'm a satisfied customer, I'd keep buying from you."
"Mr. President," said Cain, "with all due respect, your calculation on what the impact would do, quite honestly, is incorrect."
Conservatives treated the Cain mutiny like a bootleg from a Bob Dylan/George Harrison jam session, passed from fan to fan. Rush Limbaugh played the clip on his short-lived TV show. Cain's senator, Paul Coverdell, called him a "profile in courage." Newt Gingrich praised Cain and, after Republicans won Congress in the fall, gave him a slot on a flat-tax study group.
That didn't pan out—a representative of fellow panel member Pete DuPont said he "doesn't remember enough of what they worked on and spoke about to do an interview." But Jack Kemp made a pilgrimage to Omaha to meet the man who called himself The Hermanator—a name he has now trademarked—and bring him into the Republican Party. "Here's a black guy," Kemp told reporter Ceci Connolly after he was nominated for vice president in 1996, "who stands up with the voice of Othello, the looks of a football player, the English of Oxfordian quality and the courage of a lion."
No surprise that he stuck with the GOP after treatment like that. He co-chaired the 2000 Steve Forbes campaign, ran for U.S. Senate in Georgia (he came in second to now-Sen. Johnny Isakson, pointing out that, while he got half as many votes, he "came within two percentage points of getting into a run-off"), and launched a radio talk show and political column. Last week Cain launched a presidential exploratory committee, becoming the first Republican candidate of the 2012 race. He did 15 launch interviews and got the polite coverage afforded to a dark horse. "Cain didn't seem particularly plugged into the day to day of politics," observed Politico's Ben Smith.
That's the oddity of the Cain campaign: He's a man out of time. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was no easy way to transition from The Man Who Invented the Hot Slice into politics. In 2011, the Republican electorate wants to hear from anyone who's not a politician. That's what they say, anyway.
"The political landscape has changed dramatically because of the citizens' movement spurred by the Tea Party movement," Cain told me in an interview, giving me the elevator pitch for why he couldn't win a GOP Senate primary in 2004 but can win a presidential primary now. "Based upon me being very active in that citizens movement, talking to dozens and dozens and dozens of Tea Party rallies, events, conferences all over this country, I believe that people have a better attitude for an unconventional candidate—someone who's more of a problem-solver than a politician."
He's right about the Tea Party. When Cain speaks at conservative conferences and Tea Party rallies, he gets bigger crowds than members of Congress, and only slightly smaller crowds than Fox News hosts. He was invited to join the board of Tea Party Patriots, declining in part because he was thinking about this presidential bid, and he was a spokesman for Ginni Thomas' "Liberty Central." At the October 2010 Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention in Richmond, I saw football-jersey-style T-shirts displaying names of those who might run for president this year: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, and Herman Cain. When no other Republican wanted to talk about 2012, Cain would walk into speeches introduced by a heavily produced video, a highlight reel of his other speeches.