What Brought Down Herman Cain? The Ultimate Politico Myopic Story

Oh, we do love Politico — we all love a good behind-the-scenes version of politics. Sometimes, that even produces very helpful information. But sometimes…well, we get Jonathan Martin’s incredibly myopic examination of how an incompetent campaign brought down Herman Cain.

Given that probably every single example of bumbling and ineptitude that Martin documents is exactly true, the problem is that it entirely misses the point. Cain wasn’t destroyed because he lost the spin war on the stories of sexual harassment; he was destroyed because the story that he had agreed to settlements with two women over sexual harassment charges were true. The fact of those two settlements — just that alone, even if it was put in the best possible light and the accusation of assault and the claim of a 13-year-long affair were totally false — that fact was enough to ensure that the wildly improbable Cain bid had zero chance of succeeding. And of course it seems quite likely that at least some of the accusations (and others?) are in fact true.

This is perhaps related to the 40-year-old myth that “it’s the cover-up, not the crime,” a myth that somehow overlooks the straightforward idea that people who confess to crimes go to jail. That’s why they’re covered up! Now, in this case most of what Cain is accused of wouldn’t put him in legal jeopardy, but all of it would put him in political jeopardy. Of course, we don’t yet know for sure what is true and what is not, but I think it’s hard to argue that poor spin control caused the accusations — and it’s the accusations, not the campaign’s reactions, that are the real problems here.

The same is true for the other examples Martin gives of campaign blunders. Yes, of course it was silly for the candidate to be talking to a Milwaukee editorial board (and on camera!) when he had nothing to gain from doing so. But here’s Martin’s conclusion:

Cain’s unfamiliarity with major foreign policy events can only be partially attributed to his campaign. The underlying problem — that the candidate was even talking to the editors and reporters of a newspaper in a state that doesn’t figure prominently in the nominating process — was the decision of campaign manager Mark Block.

Um, no: the underlying problem is that a candidate for President of the United States doesn’t appear to be willing and/or able to converse about basic foreign policy issues at a level that wouldn’t embarrass a strong high school student. That isn’t Mark Block’s fault.

Campaigns do matter in presidential nomination politics — they matter a lot, and a lot more than they matter in the general election. But they aren’t everything, and as amusing as the Cain campaign gaffes are, they just aren’t what dragged down this candidacy.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.