Allegations of Sexual Harassment Are the Least of Herman Cain’s Problems

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Nov. 3 2011 6:59 PM

Unfit To Serve?

Forget the sexual harassment story. The Cain campaign has more fundamental problems.

Herman Cain
Herman Cain speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Herman Cain is finally running his campaign by the book. Confronted with new allegations about sexual harassment, Cain has fingered the Perry campaign as the source of the media leaks that started the whole thing. Depending on your version of the Modern Campaign Manual, this is either on page 43 or page 61, under the heading “When in Trouble, Create a Diversion.”

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.

The harder it becomes to remember what this story is about, the better it is for Herman Cain. The Perry campaign has denied the charge, but even if Perry personally called Jonathan Martin at Politico and gave him the story, it’s beside the point. Also distracting: the recollections of people at dinner parties where Cain may or may not have misbehaved, and whether Cain did or did not tell past aides in 2004 about harassment charges he’d faced.

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Cain has at least two sexual harassment settlements in his past. The questions are whether these make him unfit for the presidency, and whether the contradictory explanations Cain has offered in the wake of these disclosures tell us anything important about his ability to be president.

Wait a minute, I may have gotten ahead of myself. Before we even reach the question of what all this tells us about Cain’s ability to be president, we have to face the question of whether he has a realistic chance of becoming president at all. For those who say yes, the question then becomes whether a candidate who seems to travel with an extra pair of shoes—so as always to have the next one ready to drop—is just too big a risk to put into a campaign against a vulnerable President Obama.

Then we can approach the question of whether Cain can handle the presidency. His reaction to the latest set of challenges is not encouraging. But there is already plenty of evidence out there that suggests Cain is not a serious candidate—or at least has yet to prove he is.

The Cain campaign has been disorganized from the start and has seen a host of defections from aides who say the candidate doesn’t seem serious. “Throwing out the playbook” is an exciting move for a long-shot candidate. But when you’re leader of the free world, you need a little more planning than a diagram of a play drawn in the dirt during the huddle.

Cain’s foreign policy knowledge is thin. He’s cramming, say his aides, but he got a little confused on China recently saying, it’s “trying to develop nuclear capability.” (It has had it since 1964.) The issue he may have been reaching for is that China is upgrading its capacity in a way that suggests that it may one day rival U.S. capability. Cain offered confusing or conflicting positions on exchanging Guantanamo prisoners for hostages, the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, and whether there should be an electrified fence on the border with Mexico. Cain, who campaigns on the idea that foreign policy should provide “clarity” above all, has had some difficulty providing it.

Cain lacks any experience in elected office, which is an applause line for him. But the president is not just a CEO. He’s also the most important player in the political system. To get anything done, he must engage other politicians. Some experience in this dark art would be helpful. After all, Obama isn’t very good at managing and handling pols, at least not the way a president needs to, and it shows. Cain would be starting from scratch.

If Cain didn’t have any other shortcomings, maybe none of these deficiencies would matter too much. Taken in sum, it is a substantial set of interlocking challenges. George W. Bush was a foreign policy neophyte, but he had political skills. His campaign organization was a model of precision. Ronald Reagan had a disorganized staff and no real foreign policy experience, but he’d been a two-term governor.

We know that Cain’s supporters don’t see his deficiencies as problems. The message from Iowa over the last couple of days of interviews has been uniform: No one is ready to throw Cain overboard because of these stories about sexual harassment. Conservatives who like him are particularly distrustful of the mainstream media. Other voters have said that we all have some parts of our past that we’re not proud of and that on those grounds Cain should be forgiven.

However, there is also a consensus that Cain’s current problems could weave into a bigger liability, one that connects to his underlying weakness: He may just be too unpredictable.  Republicans above all else want to defeat Obama. The end result of all of these questions swirling around Cain may be that Republicans conclude that he’s just too big a risk in a year where their chances to unseat the incumbent are very good. It’s not clear whether this problem is addressed at all in the campaign manual.