Every presidential race has its joke candidate, the one the chattering classes are quick to dismiss. Herman Cain, who has never held high elected office and whose stewardship of a second-rate pizza chain was his sole claim to fame, was supposed to be 2012’s iteration. Herman Cain may not win the election or even the GOP candidacy – for very good reasons – but he, at the very least, deserves our respect for having clawed his way to a position where we are forced to reckon with him.
The criticism aimed at Cain strived to be balanced, but the media has always been just a little too eager to dismiss his candidacy. The less sympathetic were quicker with the jibes: Cain’s previous claim to fame was as CEO of Godfather Pizza, a boon to impresarios who were keen to use up their collection of pizza-based political humor. It was, quite frankly, snide and more than just a little disrespectful.
To Cain’s credit, his quixotic campaign has finally yielded substantial support. While he still has an uncanny ability to spout off-color politically incorrect jokes – something the highly-polished Mitt Romney would never do – it is exactly that sort of folksy humor and candor that has enabled him to jump in popularity and claim some symbolically important straw poll victories. Claims that he is "too funny" to be president obviously neglect to mention that sometimes, even in high office, being funny and personable are desirable traits in a politician – at least in the short-run.
Cain was never going to be an establishment candidate. He lacked political experience and widespread name recognition. It seemed at times that his campaign was based on his sheer force of will. He persisted in the face of premature media obituaries and stuck to a far simpler game than the sort of politicking in which the likes of Romney, Perry, and Gingrich excel.
Despite a slow start, Cain engaged in the politics of the everyday, connecting to a potential electorate with very plain-speaking rhetoric. If at times his speeches seemed divorced from sound economic logic, it was probably because his policies were. The 9-9-9 tax plan is projected to actually raise the tax burden on the middle class and hurt poor families the most. However, this and his job creation plans, while being counterproductive, were delivered in easily-digestible formats that had the magical ability to seem plausible – and the people loved it.
What’s more, Cain has proudly identified himself as being unencumbered by political correctness. He speaks his slightly old-fashioned mind, almost as if he is proud of his insularity. He parrots a typical GOP-line – the failure of government, hostility towards immigration, and a tough defense policy – but he does not couch the rhetoric in Washington-speak. It is more than a little painful to hear him discuss his grasp of foreign affairs, but, to his credit, this has made him more affable.
Perhaps his most cringe-worthy moments involved race. Instead of the post-racial politics of President Barack Obama, Cain’s oblique references to race (and his rather bizarre challenge against Obama’s ‘blackness’) seem like a regression in terms of racial politics. It remains to be seen if this will pan out but he once remarked that should the Secret Service start to protect him, he would prefer to be identified as "Cornbread," a joke widely decried by African-American intellectuals.
It seems counterintuitive but all the attributes that made him a joke candidate have, instead, helped him climb to a currently respectable level of popularity in the GOP race. His distance from the political establishment has affirmed his ‘independent’ credentials to a GOP base that has grown increasingly skeptical of Washington politics, while his highly unpolished performances have instead endeared him to a warming public. His simplistic policy messages may not be sophisticated but they’re the comfort-rhetoric that the GOP is, apparently, longing to hear.
So it seems that the members of the chattering class, myself included, who dismissed Cain as a joke candidate should not be laughing at the man anymore. Instead, we should admit grudging admiration for his persistence and refusal to be so easily intimidated. His folksy ways and grassroots approach to campaigning are at least moderately successful.
But we can still content ourselves with dismissing his awful and unfunny joke policies.
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