Intervale, N.H. Herman Cain is virtually tied with former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts in Iowa and South Carolina. He’s running second here in New Hampshire. Some polls have him ahead of Romney nationally. Everybody’s examining 9-9-9, Cain’s simplified tax system. He’s the talk of the political world.
And coursing beneath that talk is this question, not verbalized but not answered either: Is Cain the 21st-century version of Wendell Willkie, the man Harold L. Ickes called the barefoot boy from Wall Street, the political naif who won the Republican presidential nomination in 1940 and ran to the left of Franklin Roosevelt on some issues, or is he a latter-day version of H. Ross Perot, who flared, flamed out, flared again and flamed out again two decades ago?
All three of them — Willkie, Perot and Cain — used sales pitches that were simple, reasonable, commonsensical. The first two lost their presidential bids. The third almost certainly will do so as well.
In Willkie’s case, the draw of FDR was too strong, the New Deal coalition too durable, the times too fraught to permit a romantic fling with a political novice who had the air of being an alluring first date but probably not a strong candidate for marriage.
In Perot’s case, the fact that he was more peculiar than political did him in. Today almost no one admits to having been a Perot supporter in 1992 — but at one point the Texas billionaire was running ahead of Gov. Bill Clinton in the polls.
Cain matches up
Cain presents a certain appeal even in an uncertain world. He’s a businessman, which matches him with Romney. He is black, which matches him with President Barack Obama. He wants taxes low, which matches him with the tea party insurgents who dominate the Republican conversation even if they have not created wholesale Republican conversion.
He’s not primarily a politician, which can be only an advantage in an age when 11 different polls put public disapproval ratings of Congress at more than 80 percent. And he’s not Romney, which for two-thirds of Republican primary voters remains a lure all its own.
So with all that, why do the various establishments — the political establishment, the Republican establishment, the press establishment and the consultancy establishment — believe with unwavering conviction that Cain will eventually become the answer to a trivia question, like Wilbur Mills (Who was the last chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to run for president?) or Endicott Peabody (Which former governor ran for vice president in a New Hampshire primary, even though there was no contest for vice president?) or maybe George Romney (Which one-time governor and presidential candidate was the father of another former governor who ran for president?).
Bucking the establishment
First let’s ask whether all those establishments can be wrong, or, more to the point, whether they are so entrenched that they are out of touch. In short, is the very fact of establishment disregard a validation of the Cain candidacy?
Maybe. If Cain does prevail, that certainly will be the case. But he probably won’t and it’s probably not. The old wisdom of the old order is often wrong — in fact it almost always is wrong, which is why the Maginot Line didn’t work — but the difference here is that the old order still makes the rules and still has power.
This is not the Republican Party of Romney’s father, when wizened elders controlled the political process the way old-time hostesses set out the place cards at dinner. But it’s not a raucous country potluck either, where anyone can sit anywhere and everyone eats family-style. If it were, Romney, whose principal calling card is experience, would not be the front-runner and Rick Perry, the Cal Ripken of the Texas capitol, wouldn’t still be in the race.
Put another way: Mao Zedong said that a revolution was not a dinner party, but for all the talk of Republican revolution, the GOP is still a dinner party. Cain is invited, to be sure, but he is sitting below the salt, and pizza is not on the menu.
Why the surge?
So what accounts for the Cain surge?
An iron law of presidential politics is that somebody’s got to surge, and this fall, it’s Cain. (Sen. Gary W. Hart had his surge in 1984, Bruce Babbitt had his in 1988, Paul E. Tsongas had one in 1992. None of these Democrats became president.)
This phenomenon is especially strong in this year’s campaign, when the front-runner exudes competence but not compassion, is regarded as smart but smarmy, and may be undeniable as a nominee but unsympathetic as a candidate. The openness he expresses to a flat tax even though he’s on record saying it is a threat to the middle class is dangerously close to his skepticism of a health care plan he supported and signed into law.
So somebody’s got to surge, and given that this is no presidential field of dreams, there is always a premium on the new. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was new once, and she had her moment in the Iowa sun. Perry was new once, and then he opened his mouth — or, more perilous for Perry, he failed to open his mouth during a parade of debates. Now Cain is new, and he’s enjoying an Indian summer of support.
Surges help Romney
This is going to go on like this for a while, and the beneficiary almost certainly will be Romney, electable if not likable. These surges help Romney’s rivals — the Others, you might call them — but they don’t hurt Romney. He is steady at about a third of the GOP vote. That’s not a lot, but it may be enough. The surges benefit one or another of the Others, but every one of the surges has come at the expense of the other Others, not the former Massachusetts governor.
That’s what’s happening with the surge by Cain, already under siege because his tax plan doesn’t add up, his comments on abortion are out of sync with the party, and his experience as a lobbyist doesn’t square with his profile as an outsider. The first challenge for him is not to win the nomination. First he must avoid becoming another Other.