What to make of this whole Politico-Cain dustup?
To begin, it is impossible to determine from this article whether the accusations against Cain were serious or frivolous. As RCP’s Sean Trende, a lawyer in his past life, noted on Twitter, the five figure settlement these women received “isn’t that interesting,” as it is what somebody like Cain might pay to make a nuisance suit go away. For a high-profile businessman, such a settlement is fundamentally an economic decision, not an admission of guilt by any stretch. Trende adds, “Taking a case to trial could easily cost $250,000, plus I believe a sexual harassment verdict comes with attorney fees.”
What of Herman Cain’s response to this? In a word, it stinks. His campaign couldn’t get its stories straight, the final version does not square very well with the known facts, and worse Team Cain had known about this for more than a week, so it should have been prepared. This isn’t the first time I’d used a word like “stink” to describe the Cain operation, either. His tongue-tied answers on abortion and Guantanamo Bay stunk. His infrastructure in the early states stinks. His fundraising to date has stunk. You get the idea.
Many conservatives are frustrated by the prospect of a Romney nomination, but the reality is that Romney is the only remaining GOP candidate who has shown any facility with what Frank Kent once called “The Great Game of Politics.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am as frustrated as the next guy with the way the game of modern politics is played. If you are hosting a debate about the way the current system is set up, invite me to participate and I will be a vigorous and unflappable advocate for reform. In particular, I think our absurdly long, vicious, and costly primary campaign dissuades the best of the lot, and that conservatives would be better served by a nomination process similar to the old conventions.
But here’s the problem that conservatives must confront, squarely and honestly: nominating a candidate who either refuses to play the game, or plays it poorly, is no way to win. The game is what it is. If you want to change it, you need to win office (via the rules of the game) so that once in power you can change the rules. That’s the only way.
Two historical examples back me up.
First, as I have discussed before, there is the Barry Goldwater ’64 campaign. That was a complete and total disaster from the conservative perspective. Goldwater had earned a solid following among the GOP grassroots from his work at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but he was woefully inadequate when it came to advocating modern conservatism to the independent voters in the middle. He was glib about the use of nuclear weapons, talked negatively about Social Security, and allowed his principled opposition to the Civil Rights Act to be captured by Southern segregationists. The Johnson campaign let him have it with both barrels, and the result was one of the poorest GOP performances in American history; in fact, “AuH2O” somehow managed to do worse than Herbert Hoover in 1932. Goldwater probably could not have won that year, even with a perfect campaign, but the magnitude of his defeat swept into Congress scores of Northern liberals, who pushed through the Great Society.
Second is the example of Ross Perot. If ever there was a year that a third party candidate could have won the presidency, it was 1992. The Democratic brand was still in disrepute after the Carter administration, and George H.W. Bush seemed out of touch. Enter H. Ross Perot, who actually enjoyed a polling lead in the early part of the general election campaign. Perot was a successful businessman who was convinced that he could play politics by his own rules; forget the strategists, advisors, journalists, and all their spin, he would just talk straight sense to the people, and they would support him.
It was a disaster. Perot stubbornly ignored the counsel of his own advisors, micromanaged all aspects of his campaign, failed to stay on message, and soon lost control of the narrative of his candidacy. And all of this was prior to his erratic behavior in the late summer and fall – when he dropped out then dropped back in. The lesson from the Perot campaign is that even a political climate akin to a perfect storm – with an electorate dominated by disaffected voters looking for somebody to break through the old categories and govern via common sense – is not enough. You need a solid, sensible campaign operation headed by an able candidate.
Such campaigns are lacking this time around on the Republican side; instead, the GOP field seems to be Mitt Romney plus the gang that couldn't shoot straight. All of the would-be conservative alternatives to the former Massachusetts governor – Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and now Cain – have made serious errors or gaffes. Conservatives should not celebrate these mistakes. Screwing up during a campaign whose rituals are absurd and even contemptible is not raging against the machine; it is just screwing up.
Believe me, I am not happy about any of this -- but it is what it is. Yes, the political game as it is played in 2011 is terrible and in need of major reforms. But if you want to win, you need somebody who knows how to play it. Otherwise, you end up doing as well as Goldwater or Perot, which is to say that you lose by a very wide margin.