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Herman Cain explained

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Herman Cain is on a roll. Off a solid performance in Thursday night’s debate, the former Godfathers’ Pizza CEO won a straw poll in Florida — one that has predicted the Republican presidential nominee every time it’s been held. It’s still very unlikely that Cain will continue that streak. But he’s not thinking of dropping out anymore. So who is Herman Cain, and how did he get here?

JONATHAN ERNST

REUTERS

Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain talks to reporters as dozens of Tea Party supporters rally near the U.S. Capitol against raising the debt limit in Washington, July 27, 2011.

Cain, 65, grew up in Georgia and graduated from Morehouse College; he has a master’s in computer science from Purdue University. His business career started at the Coca-Cola Company. From there, he went to Philadelphia and managed to turn the city’s Burger Kings profitable.

That success led him to his best known post: stabilizing the Nebraska-based Godfather’s Pizza franchise, which he took over in 1986 after managing to turn around Burger King in Philadelphia. At Godfather’s, Cain cut some troubled franchises, launched some inventive advertising campaigns and got rid of unpopular menu items.

By the early 1990s, Cain had started to transition out of day-to-day management at Godfathers and delve into politics. In 1992, he was appointed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. In 1994, he became head of the National Restaurant Association, a post Cain held for five years.

In 1994, in his first memorable political moment, Cain confronted President Bill Clinton at an Omaha townhall meeting over health-care policy, a tete-a-tete that was caught on tape and attracted the notice of the likes of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp.

Kemp recruited Cain for a congressional study group on tax reform; he later told a reporter that the businessman was “a black guy who stands up with the voice of Othello, the looks of a football player, the English of Oxfordian quality and the courage of a lion.”

Cain left Godfather’s completely in 1996 and devoted himself to politics, with less impressive results. (He kept one foot in business, starting his own public speaking consulting company.)

Cain ran for president in the 2000 election, but dropped out early in the race and endorsed another conservative businessman, Steve Forbes. In 2004, Cain ran for Senate in Georgia, coming in a distant second in the GOP primary.

But his unsuccessful political career did attract the notice of a radio executive as Cain has a booming, rich voice. His campaign manager became his producer. He trademarked the expression “The Hermanator Experience.”

But the same qualities that make the Republican a popular radio host and tea party rally guest make Cain in­cred­ibly unlikely to be nominated for president in 2012. That is, Cain speaks his mind.

Just this weekend, he called President Obama’s economic policy “bull$&!#.” He’s said that Planned Parenthood was formed to “help kill black babies before they came into the world.” He’s had to clarify statements that communities should have the right to ban mosques and that he would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet.

He’s a hard-liner on social issues and immigration and supports huge cuts to the federal goverment — policies that might captivate conservative straw-poll voters but won’t lure a wide swath of voters.

Just as he has a knack for clever advertising, Cain can create a catchy slogan — for example, his “9 9 9” economic plan, which would institute a flat 9 percent tax on corporate income, personal income and sales receipts. He’s also promoted what he calls “the Chilean model” for Social Security, which is basically privatization of retirement savings for new workers and incentives to switch to private models for existing workers.

While Cain likes to boast about having more experience in business than politics, he’s proved somewhat clumsy at running a campaign.

Top aides in Iowa and New Hampshire quit earlier this year, saying Cain wasn’t taking the early states seriously. One former staffer recently provided legal testimony that staff tried to cover up the role of a gay campaign adviser. He refuses to name the economic advisers who helped come up with his plan; in May, Cain said he couldn’t talk about foreign policy until elected.

None of those problems are eliminated with Cain’s straw poll win. But his modest fundraising will probably expand with the unexpected triumph, and when the election is over, the national attention will undoubtedly help his radio career and his book sales.

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