The Herman Cain campaign enters this week facing a veritable, fully-fledged political catastrophe. And no, I’m not referring to Chief of Staff (and cigarette connoisseur) Mark Block’s bizarre smoking web ad.
I’m talking about Sunday night’s POLITICO report revealing that two female employees received financial settlements after accusing Cain of inappropriate behavior when he was the president of the National Restaurant Association. The Cain team has been largely inconsistent in reacting, offering a series of vague responses over the past two days.
Cain’s Monday media attack oozed with waffling. He tried denying the report. He tried not denying the report. He then purported he was “falsely accused” but definitely unaware of any financial settlement. By Monday’s end, Cain admitted that there had indeed been a cash payout to a woman who accused him of harassment. “Maybe three months salary,” Cain confessed to Fox’s Greta Van Susteren.
As he equivocates more and more, this incident threatens to completely fragment the presidential hopeful’s campaign. If we have learned anything from previous political sex scandals, it is that being clear and consistent from the beginning is the key to salvaging your career (compare Barney Frank with Anthony Weiner). Cain is playing this completely wrong. Without an explicit admission of wrongdoing or new information coming to light, I just don’t see this “scandal” itself risking Cain’s chances at the nomination (his economic ignorance should be enough to do that). So why is he being so painfully contradictory? Why is the candidate who has become a maverick frontrunner because of his brazen, straight-talking style slipping into the classic political sex-scandal archetype of ambiguity?
To me, Cain’s behavior can be explained by two possibilities of what is really going on. Both will probably mean he can’t be president.
- The allegations are indeed true. Cain sexually harassed one or more women. These employees complained and received payoffs that Cain knew about. Worse, there is even more embarrassing information about these incidents that has yet to be discovered (but undoubtedly will). This is the Anthony Weiner blueprint.
- At one point, Cain maybe made a somewhat innocuous, partially lewd gesture at an employee that was inappropriate but should not necessarily derail his political career. The employee understandably complained and received a cash settlement. The biggest problem here is not the incident itself. It is that his amateurish campaign does not know how to deal with the media firestorm. The veracity of the story shouldn’t beat him politically, but his ineptitude in the face of distress will.
Both possibilities are problematic for him. Either he is in the midst of a real political scandal because he did sexually harass someone and knew about the payoff (this would explain his equivocation) or his campaign is so incompetent that they do not know how to deal with the first bump in the road (this would also explain his equivocation). Ultimately, the political impact of this story will depend on the extent to which it can be proven and also how starkly the truth contradicts his own account.
It seems to me that whatever the real story is, it will undoubtedly differ from what Cain has already said (because he has said a lot of different things). There is, of course, the possibility that Cain can use this to his advantage, citing his victimization as a way to lambaste the “liberal media” and consolidate Republican voters. Still, I think his dubious reaction has demonstrated he is not ready to capitalize here. Whether it is because of the scandal itself or merely the fact that his campaign is not ready for the political big leagues, Herman Cain won’t be the nominee.
And that is fine by me. 9-9-9 sucked anyway.