When Herman Cain announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for president, his effort was dismissed as quixotic, quirky, and self-aggrandizing, aimed more at influencing and directing the national policy debate than at actually securing the nomination. His campaign was likened to that of perennial Green Party candidate Ralph Nader who led a third party ticket understanding he had no hope of winning, but sought, through the national media attention, to provoke the major party candidates into addressing his issues.
Suddenly, however, the words quixotic, quirky and self-aggrandizing have turned into serious, surge and frontrunner as Cain rose to third place in several polls and actually led the two major competitors—former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry—in one national survey.
Without minimizing Cain or his supporters, his ascent to the top tier is more of a powerful reflection on the continuing unsettled nature of the crop of Republican candidates than any indication that Cain has a legitimate chance at the nomination.
Like Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachman before him, he’s simply rushed in to fill the power vacuum at the top of the field. And, like them, his stay will be temporary.
Romney has been pretty much the consistent leader in polling until Perry announced his candidacy and literally within hours was installed as the frontrunner. He has since fallen far behind after a series of debate performances which raised serious questions about his qualifications to lead the nation. Congresswoman Bachman won the straw poll in Iowa and assumed the lead but rapidly descended into single digits after a number of gaffes convinced many that, as the nominee, she would be a disaster.
The rest of the field has been fortunate to reach the 10 point level in the polls and it appears they will gamely soldier on until the money runs out or until consecutive single digit finishes in primaries convinces them their effort is futile, if not embarrassing, and it’s time to abandon the quest.
Recruiting big name Republicans—former President George Bush and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—along with big name donors to pressure Gov. Chris Christie into entering the race was another sign of the unease with which the party’s movers and shakers view the current field.
Republican leaders see an incumbent president badly wounded politically and ripe for the taking. Unemployment is stuck above 9 percent, economic growth barely has a pulse, the poverty rate is at an all-time high, home foreclosures have punished millions of American families, and the national debt is an astonishing $14 trillion. Moreover, both his African-American and liberal bases are unhappy, increasingly disgruntled, and not shy about voicing their disappointment.
With a burden of such magnitude and with ample historical precedent favoring a change in leadership, Republicans seem to be extremely well positioned heading into 2012.
But, while a majority of Americans say they want a change in the presidency, when President Obama goes head to head with Romney, Perry or Cain, he wins by slim to modest margins in what must be discouraging, frustrating results for Republican leaders.
Even in those surveys in which Obama trails a Republican candidate, it is usually within the margin of error and he remains very competitive.
Cain was the beneficiary of the absence of confidence, excitement and enthusiasm on the part of Republicans. He presented an image of a take charge leader, a successful businessman, a straight talker who was not reluctant to shun the politically correct. And, he has a sense of humor which sets him apart from his principal competition.
His 9-9-9 economic recovery and job creation plan—9 percent corporate and personal income tax rates coupled with a 9 percent national sales tax—caught on initially but has begun to crumble under the weight of analyses showing that it would shift a significant tax burden away from the wealthy and onto the middle and lower income classes.
Its principal advantage seemed to be that it was as catchy as an advertising jingle, required a minimum of explanation, and rolled easily off the tongue. Who, for instance, looked forward to spending a few hours poring over Romney’s 57-point economic plan when 9-9-9 required less than 30 seconds?
It is a sign of the near desperation on the part of many Republicans that Cain, with a fraction of the money raised by Romney and Perry and with a barely functioning national campaign apparatus, rose to such prominence.
Romney remains the favorite to secure the nomination and the wave of inevitability has already begun to rise for him, small though it is at the moment.
The flirtation with Cain will turn out to be nothing more than that. In the end, 9-9-9 will add up to 27, but it won’t add up to a presidential nomination.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College.