The Rise of Herman Cain Has the Tea Party Saying, “See? We’re Not Racist!”

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 14 2011 7:12 PM

Black Swan

The surprise rise of Herman Cain has the Tea Party asking: “Who’s racist now?”

Herman Cain speaks to a crowd at Ohio Christian University on Oct. 13.
Herman Cain speaks to a crowd at Ohio Christian University on Oct. 13

Photograph by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images.

The current frontrunner for the 2012 Republican Party nomination is a 65-year-old black man. Sure, we could talk about how this is a fluke, or how “Herman Cain” is just how voters tell pollsters “I don’t know what to do yet,” or how this is all part of Mitt Romney’s Rube Goldberg plan to become president. All of that may be true, later. For now, the GOP’s current frontrunner is a 65-year-old black man.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Seriously. In three of the last five national polls, Cain has tied or surpassed Romney. In Public Policy Polling’s survey, which dug a little deeper, voters were asked to narrow the field to just Romney and Cain. Hypothetically, Cain led Romney by 12 points. Republican voters really, really like Herman Cain. For the first time since the abortive Colin Powell draft of 1995, a black candidate has led a few polls for the GOP presidential nomination. And Cain, unlike Powell, is serious about this.

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What does it mean? According to Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, the answer is … not too much. Is it promising? Sure. But let’s not get carried away.

“I think Herman’s doing well on the power of his ideas, his vision,” says Steele. “I’d say to Republicans: ‘Look—he’s not a cosmetic fix who’s going to ameliorate that ugly stripe that black people see when they look at you. You’ve got that because over the last 40 years, you've done jack to empower them.’ People need to be careful, not to come at this with the attitude that it’s going to fix their image. It's offensive to Herman. It’s offensive to me as an African-American.”

Still, even if this is one big distraction on the road to the Romney inaugural, Tea Party organizers are loving it. Cain became a national figure because he teleported around the country speaking at every anti-tax event that would have him. He was out there swinging and laughing when Tea Partiers were accused of racism. Now, Tea Partiers want him to be president. Who’s calling them racist now?

“This proves that the Tea Party doesn’t count color against candidates,” says Brendan Steinhauser, the coordinator of state campaigns at FreedomWorks. “So Rep. Andre Carson says the Tea Party wants to lynch black people. What does he have to say if Cain gets the nomination? It certainly disproves this idea that the movement is racist.”

Every time some annoying reporter or pundit or talking head or political scientist mused about the Tea Party and race—why did these people dislike President Obama so much?—the movement would point to a crop of black politicians, like Rep. Allen West, who were right in line with them. They were talking up Cain when editors were wasting space on Tim Pawlenty. Andrew Breitbart, the conservative-media entrepreneur, remembers what happened when he closed out an election-fraud-phobic “True the Vote” conference this year in Texas.

“I posited the Cain-West or West-Cain ‘All Black, All Tea Party’ ticket,” he says, “and there was a spontaneous standing ovation of epic proportion.”

You can’t overstate how much the “racism” stuff irritates the sorts of conservatives now backing Cain. They were hit with it throughout 2009. In 2010, after a Capitol Hill rally to stop the health care bill, Carson and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus accused them of using racist insults; people like Breitbart fought for weeks to get stories about this debunked and retracted. Now they can point to polls that show them backing Herman Cain. “They made these charges that the Tea Party was racist, or Astroturf, or gun nuts, or all the other pejoratives,” says Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express. “The charges were all bogus.”

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