The Cain Scrutiny

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 20 2010 8:15 AM

The Cain Scrutiny

The first Republican to jump into the the 2012 presidential primary will probably be... former Godfather's Pizza CEO and current talk radio host Herman Cain. In a Friday interview with Greta Van Susteren, Cain confirmed he'd form an explatory committee "after the first of the year." He's been saying this for nearly a year. He told the Southern Republican Leadership Conference to "stay tuned" about a dark horse presidential candidate, and here's a video of him in June 2010 being pretty explicit about wanting to listen to the "grassroots" and run.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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So: No experience in elected office (he lost a 2004 primary for U.S. Senate), no media interest yet apart from a seemingly daily commentary gig on Fox News. How seriously do we take this?

- Inside the Tea Party movement, Georgia, and conservative talk radio circles, Cain is a megastar. RedState.com (whose editor Erick Erickson is a city councilman in Macon, and who guest-hosts for Cain sometimes) is a fount of "Herman Cain porn,"* and Cain was invited to join the advisory board of Tea Party Patriots. (He declined, and this is probably why.)

- Cain's political awakening closely resembles that of Rick Scott, the incoming governor of Florida. In 1994, as the president of the National Restaurant Association, Cain had a lengthy tete-a-tete with Bill Clinton at a health care roundtable; Cain said Clinton's plans would quadruple his business's health care costs. The president disagreed. Cain came back later with data showing that Clinton's plan would quadruple the health care costs. Later, Jack Kemp remembered the exchange like this:

Here's a black guy who stands up with the voice of Othello, the looks of a football player, the English of Oxfordian quality and the courage of a lion.

I'm surprised no one has dug up that video yet. If Cain sets up a real team, expect that to be produced right away. Speaking of that...

- The cons: The political class doesn't take Cain seriously. His many, many hints that he wanted to run for president did not make news. (I've seen homemade Cain 2012 merchandise at Tea Party events since September.) You don't see quotes from Cain's motivational stump speech in the next-day accounts of GOP or Tea Party rallies, even though he shows up to as many as he can.

The political class still sees Cain and imagines a new Morry Taylor . If he really is the first Republican in, though, and starts generating just as much buzz in Iowa as he generates at, say, the Richmond Tea Party convention, that starts to change. Enough to get him about 2 percent in the caucuses in 13 months? I don't know. But ask Mike Huckabee or Ron Paul how much momentum you can get from presidential debates if you play well to part of the base and the media isn't interested in nailing you.

*I apologize in advance to Cain for whatever this does to him on Google.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.