Shortly after noon, while a restless and nation waited for Herman Cain to announce whether he'd stay in the presidential race, Rep. Steve King picked up his phone and tweeted.
The man hadn't even rolled into his Atlanta, Georgia headquarters yet, but King wanted to be clear. This was the week that Cain ceased to be amusing or useful to the members of his party. He had spent an entire month fumbling, fibbing, and making things up about sexual harassment settlements from his days at the National Restaurant Association. First he indulged the idea that he, like Clarence Thomas, was being targeted unfairly because of his race. Then his campaign asserted, without proof, that Politico's stories about the settlements were oppo from the Perry campaign -- and that a Politico reporter was the son of an accuser. Neither part of that last charge was true. Cain had assured conservative activists that there were no skeletons in his closet. There were.
Amazingly, in the first weeks of the scandal, conservatives largely stuck by Cain. As it released its newest poll, showing Cain collapsing back to single digits, the Des Moines Register noted that Cain weathered the harassment scandals. What did him in was sloppiness, in how he responded to those stories and how he bumbled other ones. But none of that should have been surprising. When I first interviewed Cain in December 2010, I asked him for some details on how he'd wind down the war in Afghanistan. "The first thing that I'd do [if elected]," he said, "is summon the experts to find out can we win." The experts dodge became part of his answer to every serious foreign policy question. Why did it take until November to catch up with him? And what exactly was he adding to the race -- what was King thanking him for?
It was a tough question to answer from the stage in Atlanta. Cain's announcement was preceded by a languid pity party from loyal local endorsers. Alveda King, the conservative niece of the late Martin Luther King, pronounced Cain the "best man" running for president. State Sen. Josh McKoon told a rambling story about a woman clipping coupons out of the newspaper, shaming the media for covering Cain's scandals instead of that.
"The coverage of this campaign, and Washington in general, is not focused on real issues," he moaned. "Are we going to sit back and let the Left tell us it is over?"
No accountability, no shame, no considering whether the candidate had taken voters on a doomed joyride. The pity party continued with an adjective-laden rant by Col. Michael D. Steele, a veteran reprimanded for telling his soldiers to kill all military-age males in a raid in Afghanistan. "There's been a lot of talkin', primarily by people who haven't even met Herman Cain," he grumbled. Why, if they'd only talk to him, they'd realize that they were wrong to ask about his past or question whether he had the stuff to be president.
Cain, when he finally took the stage, was just a little more humble. He telegraphed, early on, that he was going to declare victory and move on. "We're in the Final Four!" he said. "Think of where we came from -- from Fifth War, Pelham Street, right here in Atlanta!" He'd come so far, alas, to be brought down by lies. "As false accusations about me have continued," he said, "they have sidetracked and limited my ability to bring my solutions to the American people."
The presidential campaign, said Cain, was "Plan A." Plan B would be a new advocacy website -- a return to the role he had before he jumped into the race. Before setting that up, he wanted people to know that he was blameless. "I take responsibility for the mistakes I have made," he said. "I've been the very first too. Even if the political elites don't think I handle it the way the political elites handle it, I handled it my way." Whatever that meant -- the point was that the stories were unfair.
"It has paid and had a painful price on my family," he said, and created "a cloud of doubt over me and this campaign, and my family. That spin hurts. It hurts the American people, because you deserve solutions to your problems... My wife, my family, and I, we know those false and unproved allegations are not true. One of the first declarations I want to make to you today is that I am at peace with my God. I am at peace with my wife. And she is at peace with me!" So, that was cleared up. He'd done nothing wrong, and he was suffering for the sins and failures of the media. "I am suspending my presidential campaign," he said, "because of the continued distraction, the continued hurt, caused on me and my family, not because we are not fighters, not because I'm not a fighter. It's just because when I went through this reassessment of the impact on my family, the impact on you, my supporters -- your support has been undying -- as well as the impact on the ability to raise the funds necessary to run," it didn't work.
For reasons of pure political science terms, it's a shame that Cain campaign ended this way. The candidate got incredibly far, leading polls in key primary states, despite making no serious effort to understand foreign or economic policy apart from some simple plans and nostroms. 9-9-9! Peace through strength, and clarity! Pushing the city on the hill back up the hill!
Some of his collapse was due to his ignorance becoming an issue, but we don't know how much, because that happened in tandem with the epic mishandling of the harassment and affair scandals. Some wide swathe of the Republican base fell in love with the idea of a candidate who had led some large restaurant conglomerates, worked for a while at an industry lobbying shop, hosted a radio show, and gave speeches. Some of Cain's base embraced him as a black candidate who derided the civil rights industry -- a guy who called himself a "real black man." For a while, the phenomenon served the GOP and the conservative movement, too. What eventually convinced them that he had to go? Boy, where to start? There's maybe only one Republican who isn't taking a hard look at that, or taking the questions seriously. He just suspended his presidential campaign.
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