In criminal law, the coverup is always worse than the crime. In politics, the response to the crisis can be worse than the crisis itself. Case in point? The astonishingly bungled response by Herman Cain’s campaign to a report that the National Restaurant Association paid two female employees to settle sexual harassment allegations against Cain, then the group’s president.
One of the first things any serious presidential candidate does is to commission an opposition research report — on himself. What time bombs lurk in his past, waiting to explode? What can leak will, especially in a presidential campaign. A professional campaign plans for these moments. Not always perfectly, of course. The Obama campaign was unprepared for the firestorm over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — but in the end, the candidate turned the crisis to his advantage with a powerful speech on race.
Cain’s response to the Politico story uncovering the allegations is turning into a textbook example of what not to do. Politico gave his campaign 10 days to formulate a reaction — an astonishing amount of time in the modern, tweet-first check-later world.
The campaign’s first effort was a non-denial denial. The campaign spokesman told Politico that Cain was “vaguely familiar” with the charges and then tried to fob it off onto the restaurant association. This was laughable on its face. If you’ve ever been accused of sexual harassment — especially sexual harassment on the job that resulted in five-figure financial settlements — you’d be more than “vaguely familiar” with the charges.
Then the campaign let the candidate himself be confronted by Politico reporter Jonathan Martin without any apparent plan about how to handle it. Cain first demurred, saying he had “thousands of people working for me” and “needed to see some facts or concrete evidence.” Given a name, he refused comment. And asked directly — three times — if he had ever been accused of sexual harassment, he stayed silent for several seconds and then tried to turn the question back on the reporter. Not exactly convincing.
Especially when, after the story appeared, the Cain campaign switched to outright denial.
“Herman Cain has never sexually harassed anybody. Period. End of story,” his campaign manager, Mark Block, said on MSNBC.
Cain himself seems to have had his recollection refreshed. “Yes, I was falsely accused while I was at the National Restaurant Association,” Cain told Fox News. “And I say ‘falsely’ because it turned out, after the investigation, to be baseless.”
This is a dangerous tactic. It risks inflaming the women involved, who signed confidentiality agreements and have so far stayed silent. Cain doubled down with the assertion that he did not know about a settlement. “I wasn’t even aware of it and I hope it wasn’t for much because nothing happened,” he said. This strains credulity. Since it seems fairly clear that some settlement was reached, how could the group’s then-head not have known about it, especially since he was the target of the allegation.
It seems inevitable that more details about the episodes will emerge. Whether Cain’s presidential bid can survive the allegations of harassment depends in part on the underlying facts. But the campaign’s handling of the mess has only worsened the candidate’s prognosis.