Who’s More of a Wall Street Candidate, Herman Cain or Mitt Romney?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 17 2011 6:21 PM

Street Cred

Why Herman Cain keeps trying to say Mitt Romney is Wall Street’s candidate.

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney

Photo by Stephen Brashear.

Mitt Romney can claim a lot of geography. He was born in Michigan, was governor of Massachusetts, worked and lived in Utah, and has a summer place in New Hampshire. Oh, and he’s said to be building in San Diego.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Right now, though, his opponents are trying to plant him in downtown New York City. Romney “is more of a Wall Street guy,” said Herman Cain last week. “I'm more of a Main Street guy." Romney would "roll back Wall Street reforms and go back to where we were before the crisis and let Wall Street write its own rules," said David Axelrod on This Week. The Democratic National Committee issued a press release highlighting a New York Times story saying Romney raised more money than any other candidate from Wall Street firms.

By putting Romney on Wall Street, Democrats are attempting to tie him to the reckless traders who caused the economic collapse and the CEOs who pay themselves ever-larger bonuses. Romney is a part of and a friend to the 1 percent. This is a predictable and understandable strategy. It’s harder to figure out what Herman Cain is trying to do. He is a defender of Wall Street. He said the protesters occupying Wall Street were un-American. Has he changed? If not, maybe there isn’t much of a distinction between him and Romney after all.

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The charge is potent because Romney, who talks more about the middle class than any other GOP candidate, has tried to show that he understands the concerns of those who are struggling in the Obama economy. That’s a general election message. In Republican Party politics, there’s a downside to being seen as too tied to Wall Street. There are plenty of conservatives who don't like Wall Street. They hate TARP and they hate the special deals bankers carve for themselves. Cain could be throwing them red meat, except that he supported TARP (and suggested those who didn’t were dummies) which bailed out Wall Street banks, and he defended it in the last debate. He also said the protesters at Occupy Wall Street didn't understand that the Wall Street banks were "the ones creating jobs."

So when Cain says Romney is a Wall Street guy, it’s a compliment, right? After all, this is the guy who endorsed Romney in 2008, citing his business attributes. In 2011, however, Cain is pointing to Romney's experience as the most important distinction between the two men. So Wall Street connections can't be a good thing anymore.

Romney never worked on Wall Street. He never lived there. But that's beside the point, much the same way it's beside the point that Obama never taught at Harvard when Romney says Obama spent too much time at the Harvard faculty lounge.

Cain has explained that what he means is that he has made pizzas, cleaned bathrooms, swept parking lots, and done all those things you do when you run a business. This isn't about how each executive clocked their hours. It's a criticism, and the charge is that Romney isn't close to people’s real experiences. He's a manipulator who breaks up companies, puts them together, and crafts leverage buyouts, as Cain explained it to Human Events.

When Cain says “Wall Street” in this fashion, he's doing something alarmingly similar to what those protesters are doing. It’s shorthand for a system that has lost touch with real Americans. Cain isn't the first Romney challenger to use the term this way. Rick Perry did on the second day of his campaign. George W. Bush had a similar view of Wall Street from his days in Midland, Texas: "They'll buy you or sell you, depending upon if it's in their interest."

So what does Cain really think of Wall Street? Perhaps he will explain in Tuesday’s debate how his CEO attributes make him more qualified than Romney’s CEO attributes. And by the way, Cain is not the only candidate of two minds about Wall Street. Obama is too. There was a time when Obama could raise lots of money from Wall Street. On the one hand, his advisers use Wall Street as a boogeyman, but the president warns against disparaging a whole group of people. "Dr. King would want us to challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing those who work there," he said at the dedication of the King memorial in Washington. Maybe because Romney never actually worked on Wall Street it’s still OK to demonize him.

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