At the end of August, Herman Cain’s sudden rise to the top of the GOP presidential candidate pile was baffling. He rose just as then-favorite, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, started to fall apart (Perry, meanwhile, continues to baffle us with his sleepwalk-through-a-debate technique).
Cain’s blunt—if not always precise—talk seemed to help his rise as history’s most successful black GOP presidential candidate, especially when he complained of blacks being "brainwashed" into voting for Democrats. And that’s a common refrain among today’s black conservatives. Some of whom, like Florida Republican Allen West, even go so far as to compare blacks who vote liberal to slaves on a plantation.
While offensive on its face, it’s also not a surprise that conservatives use that analogy to explain why that black Americans—who are often churched and of socially conservative backgrounds—consistently vote for Democratic candidates and liberal policies that conservatives deem racist.
‘Contemptible’ aptly describes the race mongering by Democrats for partisan political gain," wrote the National Black Republican Association’s Frances Rice in a recent statement.
This hatred of "race mongering" led to the first cracks in Cain’s support, when, last month, he said the name of Perry’s family hunting camp—Niggerhead—showed a "lack of sensitivity." Immediately, people claiming to be Cain supporters turned on him; one conservative blogger even wrote, that Cain’s "big appeal is that he’s not just another black race-card-playing politician."
He heard the message loud and clear, and walked back his statement, and the anger quickly blew over. Here, however, is where Howard University professor Lorenzo Morris says that Cain doesn’t follow the tradition of black conservatism.
"He articulates, entertainingly, a perspective that is race conscious and hostile," Morris says, explaining that Cain’s refusal to talk about black issues is a reason why he’s succeeded.
Cain’s self-definition—American, then black, then conservative—takes a fairly conservative turn. He defines his blackness not in terms of setbacks, but successes. That do-for-self mentality is what helped him grow his conservative talk radio show before he ran for president, and it’s what’s helping him now.
Traditionally, high profile black Republicans like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell have eschewed discussing racial politics, Morris says. Instead, they involve themselves with economics and foreign policy.
Meanwhile younger black Republicans are struggling to honor their conservative values and face the economic reality that black Americans are living with. Sky high unemployment, student debt, and barriers to quality education can’t just be blamed on a lack of motivation, some Republicans concede.
Morris says that black conservatives actually tend to be fairly liberal on the issues where Cain is the most conservative—like economic policy and class. "Where he is not racial, he has this sort of negative class consciousness."
That break with black conservatism, Morris argues, is really at the heart of his support among white conservatives. Cain frequently addresses race while attacking liberals, Morris says, "representing [white conservatives] in a way that they can’t represent themselves."
Conservatives have been circling the wagons around Cain in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against him. After Politico reported that two women received a settlement in the 1990s from the National Restaurant Association after being harassed by Cain, more have come forward.
The latest was Sharon Bialek, who claimed that when she went to Cain for advice in getting a new job, he pulled her head toward his crotch and told her, "You want a job, don’t you?"
In a way, Cain’s success rests squarely on his brand of unapologetic blackness. Cain is black, but doesn’t complain about racism—he even went so far as to say he doesn’t think it’s held anyone back "in a big way" on one media hit.
And Cain is black, but he swears it’s no big deal. When asked about race and the GOP late last month, Cain told reporters at the National Press Club, "This many white people can’t pretend to like me." As an attempt to reject the idea that white conservatives only liked him because he’s black, it could have worked. But then the defenses he and his supporters mounted against the sexual harassment charges started getting racialized.
It seems to have become a two-pronged defense. On one hand, there’s the bizarre charge that some people don’t want to see a businessman in office. On the other, there were the almost immediate accusations of liberal racism. Some supporters even compared the media coverage to a "high tech lynching," taking the term from the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment case.
In a statement this week, Chairman of the National Black Republican Association Frances Rice said, "The biased, hypocritical liberal journalists are hoping they can cause Republican primary voters to turn against Herman Cain, so we will get stuck with another moderate Republican as our presidential nominee who will not inspire the enthusiastic support of the Republican Party base."
While more Republicans hold a negative view of Cain than did prior to the sexual harassment allegations, his numbers remain strong. He’s leading or tied with Romney, as he has been since his surge in the polls.
From questioning the credibility of the women involved, to questioning whether sexual harassment is even still a problem, to booing CNBC host Maria Bartiromo when she brought up the allegations at last night’s debate, Republicans haven’t yet strayed from Cain.
It’s hard to know what the final straw will be, or even if there will be one, for GOP primary voters. Cain’s plans for the presidency remain thin. The 9-9-9 economic plan, his weak foreign policy knowledge, and the lack of specifics when he was asked about a financial bailout for Italy at this week’s debate are all signs that Cain probably didn’t expect to get this far.
Yet, here he is.