The Herman Cain campaign: Breaking down old stereotypes

October 22, 2011 

How's this for a campaign slogan: "Herman Cain is good for America." Scratch that. It's more like: "The idea of Herman Cain running for president is good for America."

Americans needed to experience the "Hermanator." They needed to take a break from professional politicians and catch a glimpse of a 65-year-old self-made, independent-minded African-American conservative who is brave enough to put forth ideas and defend them.

I'm not defending Cain or his ideas. We should not negotiate with terrorists who want prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay, or install an electrified fence on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants.

But what I like is how Cain is shaking up the race for the GOP presidential nomination. The political rookie is leading in some polls and tied with Mitt Romney for first place in other surveys.

And it's likely that there is more shaking to come. Cain is getting ready to go on the attack now that he and his "9-9-9" tax reform plan have been criticized by the rest of the GOP presidential field. "They're getting on my last nerve," he told CNN's Carol Costello about his opponents.

Welcome to the club, Herman. It's annoying to watch people who have no tax plan — or, in the case of Romney, have a 59-point plan that requires a team of accountants to decipher — make fun of someone for proposing a simple solution. Judging from the reaction of people in the audience during the GOP debates, I'd say that many Republicans are annoyed as well. It seems as if every time Cain is attacked, his poll numbers go up.

Meanwhile, the elite media and other political observers insist that the Cain campaign is just a supersized marketing gimmick to sell his books. And no matter what the polls say, they don't consider him to be a serious candidate for president.

Yet, if Cain is not a viable choice, someone forgot to tell prospective Republican voters. He has the "trifecta" working in his favor: He's not Mitt Romney, he's not a career politician, and he's not white.

Cain offers Republican voters a bulletproof defense to accusations that they're racist because they want to ensure that Barack Obama is a one-term president. How could they be, the argument goes, if they're willing to make a black man their party's nominee? That strategy is cynical — but appealing.

He also offers something that Romney doesn't: someone to whom they can relate and who might understand their problems. Who would have thought that working-class white voters would find that they have more in common with an African-American who is the former CEO of a pizza company than with a former governor of Massachusetts who is worth somewhere north of $250 million? In our society, the big divide isn't race but class.

Another thing that makes Cain appealing is that some of his white liberal critics have come across as so unappealing.

A prime example is MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, who during a recent interview badgered Cain over why he didn't participate in the civil rights movement. Cain said he was still in high school during much of the prime days of nonviolent protest. That's not a good answer. The movement went on for many years, and, during the latter part of it, Cain was already in college.

But O'Donnell has not asked any of the other GOP presidential candidates if they participated. Many white Americans did participate, and some of them were beaten while others lost their lives.

In the world of a condescending liberal like O'Donnell, the question — Where were you during the civil rights movement? — is reserved for black candidates only.

See what I mean? Americans needed to experience Herman Cain. People like him challenge our preconceived notions, break down our stereotypes, and expand our consciousness. Some people hate this, and so they attack.

E-mail: ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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