Herman Cain is coming off perhaps his worst week as a presidential candidate. Last Tuesday, he said that he could see himself potentially negotiating with terrorists and releasing several hundred prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the release of one American soldier. That same night, in the most recent Republican presidential debate, he didn’t defend his 9-9-9 plan very effectively, failing to highlight the taxes that Americans would no longer have to pay under his plan.
The very next night, Cain went on CNN’s PiersMorganTonight and sounded like someone who is personally opposed to abortion but who thinks it should be legal as a matter of policy, saying, “[I]t ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make, not me as president, not some politician.” Two days later, on Fox News, he said, “Look, abortion should not be legal. That is clear. But if that family [of a rape victim] made a decision to break the law, that’s that family’s decision.” (Why Cain didn’t just say that abortion should be legal only in the case of rape or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy is anyone’s guess.) Then yesterday, on day-7 of Cain’s disastrous week, he was asked (again on Fox News), “Should abortion be a part of the political discussion?” He replied, “No, it should not, quite frankly.”
The combined effect of Cain’s statements has made him come across as either a muddled thinker or as someone who just hasn’t really thought much about these issues at all — neither of which is an advantageous quality in a Republican presidential nominee.
More fundamentally, the problem with Cain’s campaign, in its current composition, is that it’s defying his own wise axioms. Cain says his success proves that politics is mostly about messaging. But, at least over the past week, it’s his messaging that has been the problem. He says we need more clarity in our politics and laws. But his recent answers on abortion could hardly have been less clear. (In that respect, this exchange, from a week earlier, is probably even worse.) He says it’s important to surround himself with the right people. But he hasn’t surrounded himself with very many people at all — and with no one who is particularly well known in national political or policy circles.
Most of all, he says it’s important to ask the right question. But he doesn’t seem to have asked himself the crucial question: Is he really running for president? Or is he merely running to have a good time, sell a few books, get a primetime speaking slot at the convention, and maybe make a play for the vice presidency? Right now, it seems like the latter.
All of this points to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that Cain’s run as a successful one-man show is nearing its end. The question is, will the formerly successful show continue on for a while as something of a novelty act? Or will he retool the show and reopen it with a strong ensemble cast?
The good news for Cain is that, if he really wants to be president, it might not be too late.
Cain’s surge from the back of the pack to the front is a testament not only to many Republicans’ dissatisfaction with Mitt Romney — particularly with the philosophy of government that Romney’s actions and defenses on health care seem to convey — but also to Cain’s unique strengths in this race. Even while being bludgeoned on 9-9-9 in the debate, Cain reacted with a great deal of grace, coming across as much more of a gentleman than many of his rivals have under similar duress. His sense of humor and genuineness set him apart not only from much of the GOP field but also from the incumbent president, as does his Main Street business expertise. Despite his recent blunders on abortion, he seems genuinely conservative. In all, there’s a reason why he, and not one of the other GOP hopefuls, has been the principal beneficiary of the party’s misgivings about Romney.
But now, Cain urgently needs to get off of the campaign trail for a few days and meet with some newly hired professionals and the handful of people who make up the core of his skeletal staff and hash out his positions and his messaging — starting with his position on abortion and how to convey it. He needs to bring in some people to help him chart a coherent, state-by-state political strategy, rather than avoiding Iowa and New Hampshire in a Giuliani-esque manner and pretending this won’t matter. (Cain now says he’s moving in that direction.) He needs to lean on other pros to help him raise the quantities of money that someone running so strongly in the polls ought to be able to raise. He needs to discipline himself, both in terms of his commitments and his message. To be clear, he needs to be himself, but he shouldn’t be running the campaign more or less by himself.
With such an overhaul of his campaign, Cain could ride his considerable strengths deep into the Republican presidential cycle and possibly all the way to the White House. Approaching an election in which most Americans clearly don’t want to reelect the incumbent, and in which most Republicans apparently aren’t so sure they want their next-in-line to be their nominee, Cain seems to have the potential to be president. But he’ll have to show he wants it.
It’s time for the grand reopening of the Herman Cain campaign. His one-man show has had an incredible run. Now we’ll see whether Cain will adhere to his own sensible axioms and show that he truly has the ability to focus on his messaging, be clear, surround himself with the right people, and — above all — ask the right question of himself.