Cain Train goes off the rails

It seems like only a month ago when Herman Cain was riding high. He looked like the favorite in the Iowa caucuses; he had surged to the front of the GOP field at the national level; his fundraising was going strong; and despite his ridiculousness, it wasn’t completely implausible to think Cain might seriously compete for the Republican presidential nomination.

A lot can happen in a month.

An unapologetic and defiant Herman Cain suspended his presidential campaign on Saturday, pledging that he “would not go away,” even as he abandoned hope of winning the Republican nomination. Instead, Mr. Cain announced what he called a “Plan B,” continued advocacy of his tax and foreign policy plans.

“As of today, with a lot of prayer and soul searching, I am suspending my presidential campaign,” Mr. Cain said. “Because of the continued distractions, the continued hurt caused on me and my family, not because we are not fighters. Not because I’m not a fighter.”

By “suspending” his campaign, rather than officially ending it, Cain could conceivably still return to the campaign trail, but for all intents and purposes, he’s done — and he’s never coming back.

History might look back at the last couple of weeks and suggest Cain was done in by a 13-year “friendship” with a woman who was not his wife, but I don’t think that’s what did him in. Cain began his tailspin much earlier — the fact that he forgot his talking points about the U.S. mission in Libya strikes me as the turning point — and his apparent adultery effectively sealed the deal.

For those who watch campaigns the way some people watch car racing for the crashes, Cain’s departure is disappointing. The man had no meaningful understanding of any area of public policy and even less familiarity with the basics of American government — at times, he seemed to encourage Republicans to support him because of his ignorance, not despite it — and this led to frequent amusement.

But we were laughing at Cain, not with him, which is generally not a recipe for electoral success.

It’s never been altogether clear why Cain even began running in the first place. I’ve long suspected that this was a silly vanity exercise, launched by a man who saw a business opportunity — run a campaign, raise additional visibility, pick up some new fans, sell some books, charge more for speeches once the campaign comes and goes.

And for all I know, this strategy will succeed. But the fact that Cain., at least for a while, thrived as a Republican presidential hopeful, despite routinely humiliating himself, is not at all encouraging.

Indeed, Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, was right when he said, “That Cain’s candidacy was taken seriously for longer than a nano-second in a time of genuine crisis for the country raises fundamental questions about the health of the political process and the Republican party.”