The news that the GOP primary frontrunner may have settled with at least two female employees during his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association has sent shock waves through the online and print community, with media sources scrambling to get statements from Cain and his staff while working to uncover the identity of the women in question, who remained anonymous according to an alleged non-disclosure agreement they signed before leaving the N.R.A.
The Republican presidential hopeful has called the accusations a witch hunt, and flat-out denied them as baseless and false. His reluctance to give a direct response to POLITICO before the story broke however, and vastly conflicting stories and strategies across the board, mean the sexual harassment scandal will not die out anytime soon.
The important question politically, of course, is what effect such accusations, if they continue to gain ground, will have on Herman Cain's bid for President of the United States.
The Unconventional Candidate
Herman Cain brands himself as the unconventional candidate, and his campaign strategy certainly supports that view. The news that Cain may have made unwanted advances and suggestive comments to two female employees while he was president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association comes after a month of seemingly non-stop scandals and gaffes, though this is by far the most serious.
At the start of October, it seemed Cain's main problem would be defending his 9-9-9 tax plan, a controversial economic system looking to divide income tax into nine percent individual income, nine percent business and a nine percent national sales tax. Both rivals and fellow conservatives have argued that the plan would actually raise taxes for most Americans, and is akin to a Value Added Tax.
Soon, however, minor scandals and campaign gaffes took the place of serious political strategy. Video footage of Cain singing an improbable Imagine ode to Godfather's Pizza went viral earlier this month, launching countless Twitter trends involving Herman Cain Pizza Odes. A campaign ad featuring Block smoking meanwhile, (and showcasing an eerily slow-smiling Cain) brought ridicule and even some anger down on the GOP primary frontrunner.
Cain was roundly blasted for his choice to feature Block smoking in his ad, with even those who usually refrain from editorializing jumping into the fray. Let me just tell you, it was not 'funny' to me, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer said in an unusually frank airing of opinion. I am a cancer survivor, like you... I don't think it serves the country well, as an editorial opinion here, to show someone smoking a cigarette [in your campaign ad].
The Republican primary candidate protested that the ad was meant to be informative, with no intention of encouraging smoking, but Schieffer was having none of it. You're the frontrunner here, he told Cain. I'd suggest, as the frontrunner, you'd want to raise the level of the campaign.
You Know How That Sounds.
But arguments over a singing pizza president, or whether campaign ads should show supporters smoking, were completely outdone on Oct. 30, however, when POLITICO launched its sexual harassment story.
Where before, Cain and staffers were gently kidded about their unconventional choices or even sharply chastized for their ad choices, now all media outlets are after Cain's blood, trying to discover whether or not the anonymous sources and collected documentation are, in fact, conclusive.
On MSNBC's The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd Monday morning, the chosen topic, Cain's 9-9-9 economic plan, was overthrown completely, as Todd spent ten minutes grilling Block from every angle about the alleged sexual misconduct. And the Cain's campaign strategy up to this point, and even some of its political maneuverings now, are not helping matters.
Let me tell you that Herman Cain has never sexually harassed anybody, Block began on The Daily Rundown. Period. End discussion.
He went on to discuss how unreliable the accusers were, noting that almost all detractors were anonymous or declined to give their name, while those defending Cain, ranking at the top of the National Restaurant Association during his tenure there, have wholeheartedly supported him.
Block then, however, made a miscalculation when discussing what Herman Cain actually told him about the case.
He [Cain] said to me, emphatically: Where there is [sic] facts, bring them to me. Let me face my accusers, and we'll deal with it then, Block said. It doesn't sound like he's giving you a flat-out denial, Todd pressed. I would suggest, Block hedged, that you contact the National Restaurant Association and ask them about any settlement. I am not personally aware of any settlement.
You know how that sounds, Todd told the campaign manager, The fact that you can't say it [an outright denial], and you're telling us to go to the association...
That's the place, Block insisted, to get the answer... How many times do I have to say it?
A Witch Hunt.
Cain himself has been far more successful in getting the message out. In an interview on Fox News, Cain denied the accusations firmly and categorically, refusing even to entertain the idea of a misunderstanding between himself and the two women.
I have never sexually harassed anyone. Anyone. And absolutely these are false allegations, Cain said.
He went on to say that he was aware of the allegations while at the association, but called them baseless and false.
If more allegations come, he finished, I assure you people will simply make them up.
Cain was even more open at the National Press Club, saying he would be delighted to clear the air. He denied both charges of sexual harassment and the persistent rumor that financial settlements had been made. It was concluded after a thorough investigation that it [the charges] had no basis, Cain said in response to Mark Hamrick, president of the press club. I am unaware of any settlement. I hope it wasn't much, because I didn't do anything.
Cain went on to lay out his counter-offense, which could do much to detract from attacks and to distract attention from the accusations themselves: he blamed the POLITICO story on his meteoric rise in the polls.
Two weeks go or three weeks, we started hitting the top tier of those running for the Republican nomination, Cain told the National Press Club. So for a couple of weeks now, I've gotten used to what it feels like near the top. And as a result of today's really big story... He paused. I really know what it feels like to be No. 1.
Cain continued to express frustration at the attacks, and to condemn those behind them, as moderator Hamrick attempted to take the microphone back. We have no idea of the source of this witch hunt, which is really what it is, he said, moving in again. We've been trying to get my message out.
High Tech Lynching
So far, the anonymity of the accusers and Cain's adamant refusals are doing much to foster doubts about the validity of POLITICO's claims. It is certainly true that Cain, from the moment he became a viable candidate, has been under fire by Democrats and fellow primary candidates alike for the inexperience and unconventional tactics that have also won him a legion of loyal followers.
Cain has used that constant defensive strategy to his advantage, casting himself as the only real candidate among his competitors and brushing off most criticisms, including those like the 9-9-9 plan rooted in statistical and mathematical fact, as jealousy over his success. When you have the best plan on the table, Cain said last week in Washington, D.C., expect to be attacked... I didn't expect the bull's eye to be that big on my back, but it was pretty big.
In the wake of the sexual harassment crisis, Cain took the opportunity to add another aspect to his counter-attack: accusing his accusers of racism. Building off of Ann Coulter, who told Fox News that liberals are terrified of strong conservative black men, Cain took the opportunity to note that the scandal broke 20 years after the Clarence Thomas case, when Anita Hill accused the former Justice of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings.
They're going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate, Cain responded. To use Clarence Thomas as an example, I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through-- for the good of this country.
Will It Work?
The whole reason Cain was in Washington D.C., however, was as part of an effort to reach out to the Republican establishment, which has long viewed the businessman's long-shot bid with skepticism and alarm. Rather than get a chance to capitalize on his appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, Cain faced a flood of media questions about the sexual harassment scandal, which he brushed off with increasing irritation. I'll take, he said, all the arrows later.
The fact that POLITICO's sources are anonymous, meanwhile, may not hurt a valid accusation, and certainly not a smear campaign, against the GOP hopeful. If information about these employees' identities come to light, journalists are sure to follow the story through 2012, and NC News has already confirmed that one woman did receive financial compensation after alleged misconduct from Cain.
The Cain campaign's dodging of the question for so long also puts Herman Cain in a bad light, cast not as the man framed by rivals so much as the man caught running from a sordid past.
For the truth of the matter is this: this scandal is not about sexual harassment alone-- despite being quite a Puritanical culture, America shows a surprising willingness to forgive harassment if it doesn't involve call girls and adultery-- but what scandals, and their cover-ups, say about Cain's integrity.
Jonathon Alter, in his piece How the Washington Scandal Machine Works, laid out the way in which stories explode or are hushed up in in the U.S. political landscape. A critical variable, Alter writes, is whether a story is consistent with what we think we already know about the politician.
American citizens know almost nothing about Herman Cain, and the good that they have discovered (a self-made businessman, a successful entrepreneur) is now being overshadowed, thanks to the Internet, by less flattering and more mocking portraits, which can be kryptonite to a presidential candidate. Breaking news that Mark Block may have used illegal corporate funding to support the 2012 campaign could be similarly damning, if word ever gets out under the titillation of sexual misconduct charges.
If Cain becomes associated with the sexual mores of a sly-eyed Bill Clinton and the crooked back-tracking of Richard Nixon, his campaign is in for a rude awakening.
If Cain continues to cast him as crusader of the unconventional, however, Americans may lump this incident with all the other weird happenings surrounding the Cain campaign, or even buy the message that the candidate is being targeted for his politics and his race. Cain is a good talker, a funny and approachable figure, and has always cast himself as up front and unapologetic. Those are all things that can help him recover from POLITICO, his fellow candidates, and his own campaign staff.
Herman is going to stay Herman, Cain said earlier this month. Thank you very much. Cain has built his whole campaign around the persona of staying Herman, turning his inexperience into an asset. If America continues to respond to that image of unabashed honesty, these rumors may yet fail to cast a cloud over the Republican candidate's campaign. One more scandal however, and the whole deck of cards will come up tumbling down.