Leave Herman Cain Alone!
The three arguments Republicans are using to defend him.
Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the National Press Club on Oct. 31.
Rep. Steve King represents the conservative bluffs of western and northwestern Iowa. He has personally shepherded the Republican Party’s would-be presidents around his state. He hasn’t endorsed any of them yet, but he sees Herman Cain fighting off a scandal, and it gets his blood pumping hot.
“Where’s the Anita Hill?” he said. “This is an Anita Hill issue, and from what I see, without substance, this shouldn’t have been a story.”
King is not the only conservative saying this. Three days into a scandal that’s collecting mass and speed like some fast-rolling lava floe, a third woman and a Republican consultant have emerged with more allegations of “very uncomfortable” 1990s-era Cain harassment. Yet Republicans are not abandoning Cain. The people who stand to gain if Cain implodes are mostly quiet about the stories. The rest of the conservative movement has risen up in anger at the media for even covering this stuff. On Wednesday, as Cain bounced from suburban Virginia to Capitol Hill, dodging TV cameras and pissed-off reporters, it was basically impossible to find a Republican who wanted to pile on.
As of Wednesday there are three main arguments being mounted in Cain’s defense. Let’s count them down, from flimsiest to Most Likely To Succeed.
Argument No. 1: Why, This Is All Just Racist
Cain has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the “race card.” He hates it, and he thinks no one should use it. Months ago, I was in a tiny scrum with Cain (boy, those days are over) when a British reporter wanted to know whether the mostly white GOP could ever support him. “Am I black?” joked Cain. He couldn't care less!
But when Cain has been in trouble, he’s searched under the couch cushions to find the card, brush it off, and shove it in the other guy’s face. After Cain joked that legislation should top out at three pages, and Jon Stewart made fun of this, Sean Hannity asked the candidate why. “Because I’m black,” said Cain. This was after he predicted that he, just like Clarence Thomas, could be the victim of a “high-tech lynching.” On Fox News on Tuesday, Charles Krauthammer asked Cain if race had anything to do with this story. “I believe the answer is yes,” he said. The next day, his campaign sent out a fundraising update to supporters, quoting Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who’d been defending Cain on the grounds of left-wing racism. The Super PAC Americans for Herman Cain gave up altogether on subtlety and titled one of its fundraising e-mails: “First Clarence Thomas, Now Herman Cain.”
To understand this defense, you have to understand something about conservatives: They think Democrats use it all the time. Why shouldn’t Cain spit it right back at them? It’s only fair. And then they think harder on it, and realize that they hate it when Democrats do this. After the Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin saw Cain talk to Krauthammer, she attacked “Cain’s noxious racial politics.” Ron Christie, an African-American Republican strategist who materializes on cable news in times like these, describes just how icky it feels.
“On the one hand, some of the commentary (think Karen Finney) has been vitriolic because Cain is black and a conservative,” he said, referring to one of the spats in the cableverse. “As to the nature of the allegations themselves? Hard to say. I don't like the race card being played by the left or the right, and I think both sides have tried to do so to exploit a perceived political advantage.”
Effectiveness level: Risky, with high chance of backfire.
Argument No. 2: You Can’t Trust the Liberal Media
On Wednesday afternoon, Cain did a quick Q&A with Republican members of Congress working on health care. Rep. Michael Burgess, who called the meeting, ribbed the press for showing up with questions about the scandal: “I have every belief you're going to look into this as carefully as you looked into President Obama's college grades.” After the meeting, the Republicans were unanimous: Cain should ignore the scandal and keep talking like this.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.