Is Herman Cain Running for President, or Governor of Georgia?
In either case, you should be gravely concerned
Give Herman Cain his due: He doesn’t wilt under pressure. Tuesday night’s GOP debate saw him going head up, in the center of the table with his GOP rivals and holding his own. He hit Romney on his abstruse economic plans, and drilled through his “999” tax code plan, which was mentioned 24 times during the debate. The following morning Cain smirked his way through an interview as Chuck Todd tried to grill him on “The Daily Rundown.”
He was important enough for Michele Bachmann to throw a satanic reference his way (though admittedly she hands those out like campaign buttons). And, in another brand of validation, a few days ago, Cornel West told Cain to “get off the symbolic crack pipe.” All those slings add up to him being if not a true frontrunner, then certainly someone who has gotten out of the starting blocks faster than anyone thought he would.
I’m loathed to admit it, but a part of me felt a perverse pride in seeing the black guy hold his own, and perhaps some implicit validation of Morehouse College and by extension the Atlanta University Center where I taught for a decade. There was some element of comeuppance in the fact that an HBCU-educated political novice who ran a pizza chain was skilled enough to outshine most of his more seasoned white counterparts and put a few of them on the defensive. But that sentiment took a backseat to another more considered one: That beneath Cain’s Southern drawl, his stuttering nines and unshakeable demeanor is a regressive sensibility that should concern all of us, not just black voters.
Earlier this week, in the face of sustained protests from the Occupy Wall Street movement, Cain remarked that the protesters were simply “jealous” of the people who have jobs – as if gainful employment were the equivalent of the new iPhone. And for all his success at having 9-9-9 become part of the political vocabulary, Cain is unconvincing when he says that tacking another sales tax onto food and necessities won’t punish the poor and favor the wealthy. Earlier this week, he dusted off the tired argument that Obama was “not part of the black experience” (because it worked so well for Alan Keyes in 2006). It’s worth noting that you have yet to see anyone hawking a Herman Cain t-shirt in the hood, nor will you. Although I’ve threatened to make bumper stickers for a Herman Cain/Uncle Ruckus dream ticket with the slogan “Raise Some Cain, Start Some Ruckus: 2012.”
The GOP has long trafficked in a mythology of a beautiful American past whose virtues were forgotten and thus our present social ills are our own fault. Cain wants to move to a slightly updated version of that -- the one where a Republican stood a ghost of a chance of winning black votes, the world where Richard Nixon could claim nearly a third of the African-American electorate in the 1960 election. But for all his clumsy handling of the race, there should be a reflex concern about seeing any Republican, black or white, from the state that just executed Troy Davis achieve national prominence, much less the White House.
Ultimately this may be a wasted concern. Cain first came to public attention two years ago when he ran for governor of Georgia. And part of me suspects that he is now running for the highest office in the land – between Florida and South Carolina. The current governor, Nathan Deal, has been under ethics investigations since before he even took the oath of office and rumors of indictments continue to swirl around his administration. For all his alleged surging in the polls, Cain stands no chance of winning the nomination or, reasonably, the vice president slot. But he has already succeeded in boosting his name recognition and creating a national fundraising network that he can tap for future campaigns. Cain may yet find his way to the governor’s mansion – and that is reason enough for all of us in Georgia, right down to Morehouse College, to be gravely concerned.