Only a week ago Herman Cain was riding high. Without even setting foot in Iowa, he was leading in the polls and creating new rules for the campaign -- rules which said that not money, not party support, but character as perceived by the voters is what wins presidential elections. Even the press was starting to like him.
Now his campaign lies in a shambles. The sense of humor is gone and the headlines read, "Cain in testy exchange with reporters." Not only is Cain a goner but his Nixonian response to the incident will probably bring down the entire Republican ticket as well. How can Obamacrats do anything but laugh at the spectacle of Cain blaming Perry and Perry blaming Cain and everybody else ducking for cover while the bonhomie of the debates that was just beginning to capture the attention of the nation goes down the drain. It was that same quality -- character -- that had raised Cain to unprecedented heights that quickly brought him down.
"It's a witch hunt, a high-tech lynching. Someone is trying to destroy me!" comes the response from the supposedly even-tempered, good-natured pizza executive who wanted America to develop a sense of humor. WAKE UP HERMAN! This is an election! Of course someone is trying to destroy you. It was General Douglas Macarthur who said, "Primaries are worse than war. In war you fight your enemies, in primaries you fight your friends." The object of an election is to destroy the other candidate in as civilized a manner as possible. There's nothing new about that. Revelations are always going to come out -- everybody's got a past. It's the way a candidate responds to them that determines whether you're a winner or a loser.
Take a look at last week's cover of New York magazine. It featured a 1980s photo of Mitt Romney with $20 bills ostentatiously hanging out of his suit jacket. The headline read, "Mitt Romney's 1% Economy." Can you imagine? SOMEONE IS TRYING TO DESTROY MITT ROMNEY! Is that anything to get upset about? Would it have helped if Romney went off on a tirade trying to determine who supplied New York with the picture? Herman Cain hasn't been destroyed by liberals or Democrats or moles in the Perry's campaign staff. Herman Cain destroyed himself.
Anyone who knows politics had been expecting something like this for weeks. There had to be an incident where he pinched a waitress in Burger King or something. When it happens, though -- and it's always going to happen -- there are two simple rules:
1. Get everything out on the table yourself. Don't wait for it to drip out from other sources. Nothing -- repeat, nothing -- can be kept from the press.
2. When the facts are out, admit it if you've done something wrong and apologize. Say you're sorry. It won't happen again. Now let's go back to the issues.
Cain did neither and his staff was even worse. They're mostly amateurs and campaign junkies with a bunker mentality. The on-air telephone exchange between J.D. Gordon, a former Navy commander who is Cain's press liaison, and Fox commentator Geraldo Rivera was one of the worst of all time. Without even bothering to respond to the question of whether a complaint had ever occurred, Gordon went on a rant of how it was all a liberal plot -- a tactic that has now been changed to say it is a Perry plot. Very presidential.
Had Cain played it right, the whole incident could have been a two-day sensation. After all, what's at stake? Was there an illegitimate child around? A one-night stand? A groping? An attempted rape? Grover Cleveland went to the White House after it was discovered that he was supporting a mistress and a love child. ("Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.") Jennifer Flowers had telephone tapes documenting her 12-year affair with Bill Clinton. Both went on to win election. Cain's case was nothing more than an old-school guy caught up in the invisible lines and shifting codes of 1990s "sexual harassment."
And there was his defense. All Cain had to do was admit he might have done something a little untoward and apologize. Something like this: "I'm an old school guy. I didn't realize I was offending anyone. Back home where I go to church I can walk up to a pretty young woman in the choir and say, 'My, you're just as cute as a button' and nobody will think I'm sexually harassing her. All this stuff was new to me and it took me awhile to learn the rules. But I haven't acted that way in a long time and it won't ever happen again. I'm sorry and I hope these women will forgive me."
Of course Emily's List and the Huffington Post would never accept this explanation, but who cares? This election isn't going to be decided by Washington pundits. It's going to be decided by the 41-year-old housewife in Peoria who might have been saying, "He's really a nice man. I don't think he meant any harm," but is now saying to herself, "I don't think I can trust this guy."
It's tragic that all this had to happen because now it means we're going to have four more years of Obama. Cain was the only candidate who had a realistic chance of beating him. Now we're going to get Romney who will be eviscerated by the press and the Democrats as a privileged child of wealth -- which he is. That New York cover was just the start. Cain could have taken this argument and shoved it back in Obama's face, unveiling him to be the condescending twerp he is. Now it's not going to happen.
For want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For want of composure and a little sense of detachment, a whole era may have been lost.