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.
“He was on message, and that’s as it should be,” said Rep. Andy Harris, a freshman from Maryland. “What we ought to be concentrating on is not wasting that time paying attention to issues other than the economy and how we’re going to get out of this mess we’re in.”
That’s what Newt Gingrich is saying, too. Shame on the media for asking about this! “He’s out there trying to help a country that’s in desperate trouble,” Gingrich said. “And he has gotten more coverage over the last few days over gossip.” If Gingrich had wanted to, he could have looked at some right-wing blogs, which have taken this ball and spiked it. (Speaking of which: Did you know that one of the Politico reporters behind the scoop is sort of vaguely connected to George Soros?)
It’s fun, and it’s familiar, but how does it help Cain? This isn’t a case of a media outlet formulating a story out of nothing. This was a story that multiple organizations had heard inklings about, that Politico did the work on, and that its reporters backed up with primary documents.
Effectiveness level: Limited, because the media isn’t the problem.
Argument No. 3: There’s No Such Thing as Sexual Harassment
This one took a while to come out. It’s a hard conversation to start. Conservatives don’t like to admit it. But hell, time to say it: They just don’t think that the stuff Cain was accused of was all that bad. Sexual harassment claims are overblown. When he says the charges are false, they believe him. The lawyer and pundit Kurt Schlichter summed it up in a widely circulated op-ed: “In the world of sexual-harassment law, the accusations are bad enough.”
As they gripped and grabbed with Cain on Wednesday, Republicans said the same thing. Maybe the women in question were a little bit nutty, or a little bit—hey, you know the rest. “It’s unfortunate,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson after the health care meeting. “But during campaign time there are certain individuals who will raise half-truths and mis-portray things. Sometimes they do that because they’re desperate in their own campaigns. I guess I’m not surprised this type of thing is brought forward.”
Steve King, among Cain’s most vocal defenders, took me back to his days running his construction company and working with the Iowa Land Improvement Contractors' Association. Sexual harassment training was a pain, an insult. After he and colleagues had to watch a 45-minute how-not-to video, he stood up and said, “I am insulted that you would burn up our time with something that could be replaced by the two words ‘common courtesy.’” The only woman in the room, he said, applauded.
“It’s a terrible concept,” said King, “to define an action by the perception of the perceived victim.”
Let’s say that Cain has bungled away the nondisclosure agreements that the National Restaurant Association put away in the 1990s. The women in question come out and speak. At that point it’ll be their word against his. All those doubts about the very idea of sexual harassment settlements, all those doubts about whether this stuff can be trusted—that will come in handy.
Effectiveness level: It’s the best he’s got.