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.
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."