Presidential campaigns are like crucibles that test candidates and their mettle. That is a lesson being learned by Herman Cain and Rick Perry.
Herman Cain, like many businessmen turned political candidates (e.g., Donald Trump) comes from a world where he can control much of what goes on around him, including the questions he gets asked. Moreover, when you have money and power in the corporate world the “little people” (such as women who object to sexual come ons) are easy to brush aside. You can threaten or bribe them, and if something goes to trial you have the lawyers who can make the problems go away.
So once Herman Cain broke through the pack and became the darling of the right wing of the GOP, the main contender to deny the nomination from Mitt Romney, he couldn’t fathom the idea that past allegations of sexual misconduct involving women could hurt him. Who are these women? How dare these “nobodies” can get in the way of his run for the Presidency? So like any CEO he demanded nobody ask him about them, denied everything, and assumed it will go away.
Cain is discovering the campaign crucible. Every aspect of your life is fair game, and you’re judged not so much on your past misdeeds but how you handle the situation when embarrassing facts come up. Cain has done so in the worst way. Unless this is some grand conspiracy and they’re all liars (well, they can’t all be because we know at least one got a $45,000 settlement) Cain looks foolish saying “I’ve never done anything inappropriate to anyone.” First, that statement is untrue no matter who utters it — no human has never done anything inappropriate. Second, he compounds it by lashing out at his accusers.
Think of what this means — if President, Herman Cain would have no moral qualms about doing whatever necessary to silence those who might stand in his way. How Nixonian. Now, I can’t know for sure that is the case. Maybe there is a grand conspiracy against him, but while you are innocent until proven guilty in the court room, that’s not the case when you’re running for President. A strong doubt that one has a quality character can turn voters off. Cain’s incompetent handling of his on going problem — and the likelihood of new revelations — could end his unlikely rise from political anonymity to the White House. But he’s not only one learning that campaigning is harder than it looks.
Rick Perry was riding high just a few months ago. As long as he was the “great Texas hope,” considering a run, people dissatisfied with the existing candidates projected onto him images of what they longed for. Someone like Reagan, plain speaking, principled and charming. Skeptical of government but not crazy, someone voters would like and view as a “natural.” He was wooed, the pundits proclaimed him the strongest potential candidate, and when Perry finally announced many in the GOP felt the time had come, they had found their messiah!
Then Perry started to campaign. Gaffes, apparent lack of knowledge about basic information, an apparent call to end social security and like Chinese water torture the little mistakes kept piling up until he started to sink in the polls as voters turned to Cain. Then Wednesday night the drips turned into a flood as for 53 seconds Perry stammered and hawed, unable to recall his own campaign position on which three agencies he would eliminate. He remembered Commerce and Education, but the third eluded him. Ron Paul tried to help, citing the EPA. Perry quickly agreed, but then said no, that wasn’t it. In the end he just said “oops.”
I’ve been lecturing for over 20 years, and I cannot count the times I’ve forgotten things I know well. The other day a colleague and I each could not recall the name of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. We both have discussed it many times in lectures and conversations, but we just got brain freeze at the same time. So frankly, I’m sympathetic to Perry. I am a pretty good public speaker and my strength is improvisation and memory. Yet I could easily see something like that happening to me, even with a fact that is basic.
If it hadn’t come after all the other gaffes, it certainly would not be proclaimed as “campaign ending” like some pundits are saying. It’s just that on top of everything else so far it feeds into the image of Perry not as the Reaganesque plain spoken Texan but more like the nastier stereotypes of his predecessor as Texas Governor, George W. Bush — not especially smart or ready for the job.
President Bush served two terms. Those writing Perry off over this are premature — Iowa’s vote is still over a month and a half away, New Hampshire’s even further. If Republicans can give Cain a second chance (at least so far) despite his scandal, a lapse of memory doesn’t doom Perry’s effort. But like Cain he’s run out of mulligans, he needs to bounce back. Even the earlier strategy they considered of avoiding debates is now off the table — now it would look like he’s chicken, afraid he won’t be able to cut it.
But the campaign is taking its toll. Mitt Romney has been through this before and his sometimes bland and apparently chameleon like effort may make people question his principles, but he’s not making dumb mistakes. Newt Gingrich has a history that makes Cain look like a feminist, but he’s been in the spotlight for 20 years, he knows how to play the game and understands that part of the primary season is simply the capacity to “stick around.” John McCain, another political veteran, did that in 2008 after his immigration stance caused his candidacy to collapse in the fall of 2007. And who knows — if it becomes “anybody but Romney,” you might have Jon Huntsman, who has been flying under the radar, pull off a New Hampshire surprise and mount an effective campaign.
Meanwhile, President Obama runs unopposed, is raking in the campaign cash, and planning a strategy using all the perks of the incumbency.