Apparently, Iowans don’t give a hoot whether or not Herman Cain has ever sexually harassed anyone. A Washington Post poll reports that Cain’s popularity nearly matches Mitt Romney’s, at a rate of 23 percent to 24 percent. Meanwhile, 70 percent of Republicans have stated that the allegations will make no difference in their choice of a candidate.
Iowa, remember, is a state where Cain’s campaign efforts have been notably lax. Closer to home, he’s doing even better. In a recent Rassmussen poll, the native Georgian out-pointed Romney among South Carolinians, 33 percent to 23 percent. Jaded by the escapades of former governor Mark Sandford, Palmetto State Republicans might have a high threshold for the kind of scandal that can be called “alleged” and doesn’t involve the mis-use of public funds.
This is all very well for Cain, but it makes me wonder why — for Pete’s sake, why — he had to defend himself by playing the race card. During a Fox News appearance, when Charles Krauthammer asked whether he believed the allegations had been racially motivated, Cain answered, “yes,” adding, “we have no evidence to support this.”
Cain didn’t elaborate on who, exactly, was exercising a racial grudge — the women who made the allegations, or Politico, for publishing their stories despite their insistence on remaining anonymous. In the Krauthammer interview, he did add: “Relative to the left I believe race is a bigger driving factor. I don’t think it’s a driving factor on the right.”
But one enemy and one camp just won’t do for Cain. He has also accused Rick Perry’s people of orchestrating the scandal, without actually saying whether his race figured among their motives. On the contrary, Cain managed to disclaim his suspicions, at least halfway, when he told Sean Hannity, “Let’s just say, there aren’t enough breadcrumbs that we can lay down that leads us anywhere else at this point.”
That’s some pretty wild spin. It puts the voter in the strange position of hoping that Cain knows how silly he sounds, but also knows that it’s good for business. Rather than focusing exclusively on what he might have done to whom, the media are diverting their attention to the question of why the beans were spilled in the first place. Commentary, though generally partisan, has sometimes been enlightening.
Larry Elder, for example, points out that, in 1988, when Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, the media deferred to his wife‘s request that they sit on stories he‘d strayed. Without saying that liberals — or the media, or even the liberal media — are racist, he does offer one occasion where they gave a pass to a black liberal that they denied to a black conservative. This raises the questions of whether the pre-internet media can really stand comparison to their post-internet descendants; in Salon, Steve Kornacki doubts that Politico’s editorial policy favors Left over Right. Still, Elder provides the reading public with good food for thought.
Unfortunately, voices like Elder’s aren’t the only ones, or even the loudest. All over Fox News and talk radio, conservative pundits are declaring Cain’s drama the second coming of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Sean Hannity was the first to call it by Thomas’ phrase “high-tech lynch mob.” Rush Limbaugh declared it a “racist hit job.” Laura Ingraham believes liberals are trying to send Cain, “a black man who thinks for himself,” to “the back of the bus.”
In the Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg calls this view of events “absurd.” Absurd or not, it represents an stunningy ambitious attempt to flip one of the most powerfully charged scripts in American political discourse. Traditionally, conservatives have dismissed the idea of racial bias as an illusion promoted by liberals in order to gain leverage over blacks and weak-minded whites. Limbaugh himself has plugged this line relentlessly. But here, on the flimsiest of evidence, they’re insisting that, not only is the Right not racist, the Left is. So there. I know you are, but what am I.
It’s hard to say whether Cain buys into this view wholeheartedly. Earlier in his campaign, he went on record saying, “I don’t believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way.” He seemed to be granting a plenary indulgence to Left and Right alike. If, now, he truly means that racism does exist, and is all coming from the Left, then he’s making a bold statement, and a very divisive one.
Compare it with the speech delivered by the future President Obama after it was discovered that his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, had gone so far as to call God’s curse down on America. While assuring audiences that Wright’s opinions were not his own, and condemning “black anger” as “counterproductive,” Obama went out of his way to validate the resentment felt by some white Americans against blacks:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away. And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
It’s true, Obama did single out “conservative commentators” for dismissing “legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.” But the discrimination itself he presents as bipartisan, or non-partisan — at any rate, a wash.
Say what you like about Obama — the speech was magnificent, and helped as much to get him elected as anything he ever said or did. Cain could stand to learn a lesson from it. Even if he believes his own narrative on race and politics, he ought to consider downplaying it. “Lefties-are-bigots” might resonate with the likes of Limbaugh and Ingraham, but then, their goal is to sell advertising space, not to win elections. If Cain intends seriously to win the presidency, he’d better hire an independent speechwriter…maybe even find a teleprompter.