Eugene Robinson
Opinion writer October 31, 2011

Responding to his insurgent campaign’s first crisis, Herman Cain was upbeat and defiant. “To quote my chief of staff and all the people around this country, ‘Let Herman be Herman,’ ” he said Monday. “And Herman is gonna stay Herman.”

I was afraid of that.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section. View Archive

Cain’s policy positions range from the ignorant to the unworkable to the just plain goofy — and yet he is running first or second in most polls for the Republican presidential nomination. He trumpets his utter lack of government experience as a selling point and boasts of not knowing foreign leaders’ names. If through some bizarre series of events he were actually elected president, the result would surely be an unmitigated disaster.

It’s not yet clear whether this remote possibility has been made even more unlikely by reports — first published Sunday night by Politico — that Cain faced allegations of sexual harassment from two female employees when he headed the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.

After some initial fumbling by Cain’s campaign, in which aides attempted to issue non-denial denials, the candidate himself went on Fox News to declare that “I have never sexually harassed anyone.” He acknowledged having been “falsely accused” of harassment when he was at the restaurant association, but he said the accusations were “totally baseless and totally false.”

He did not specifically deny the Politico story, however, which reported that the two women both left the association after being given financial settlements and signing agreements not to discuss their allegations. “If the restaurant association did a settlement, I wasn’t even aware of it,” Cain said Monday on Fox.

Nor has Cain, to this point, dealt with the reported substance of the allegations. According to Politico, this includes language that the women felt was inappropriate and made them uncomfortable; and, in one instance, a purported suggestion that one of the women accompany Cain to his hotel suite.

Far-right blowhards immediately played the race card. “Liberals are terrified of Herman Cain,” pundit Ann Coulter said. “He is a strong, conservative black man. . . . They are terrified of strong, conservative black men.” Rush Limbaugh said Cain was being sullied by attackers wielding the “ugliest racial stereotypes.”

Interesting to hear those two acknowledging the powerful role that race still plays in our society — the first step, intellectually, toward concluding that there’s a continuing need for race-based affirmative action. That’s what they meant, right?

Um, no. I’m quite sure that the far right’s quickness to compare Cain to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — and to call Cain’s present difficulties a second “high-tech lynching” — is just another salvo in the intraparty war Republicans are having.

On one side is the Republican establishment, which has decided that Mitt Romney is the candidate most likely to defeat President Obama next year and thus is the party’s obvious choice. This faction is personified by Bush-era political guru Karl Rove, whose reaction to the Politico story was to criticize the way Cain was handling his response.

On the other side is the majority of Republicans who aren’t sold on Romney and are looking for somebody else — Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, anybody. Despite his lack of experience — and his apparent lack of a national campaign staff or strategy — Cain is proving to have as much staying power as any of the others.

At a National Press Club appearance Monday, Cain was asked whether he thought Politico might have been tipped off about the sexual harassment allegations by one of his rivals for the nomination.

“I told you this bull’s-eye on my back has gotten bigger,” Cain replied.

He needs to answer more questions about the alleged harassment. Beyond his categorical denial of wrongdoing, he could call on the National Restaurant Association to relax its confidentiality agreement and release records of the two cases — perhaps with names redacted — so voters can come to their own conclusions. Cain said Monday that he would not request such action. Why not release as much information as possible, if that will put the issue to rest?

I hope he does, because we’re running out of bandwidth. Cain’s famous “9-9-9” tax plan would be ruinous. He wants to privatize Social Security. He believes that “extensive foreign policy experience” is not something a president needs, since when he was named chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, “I had never made a pizza — but I learned.”

So many reasons to oppose this loopy candidacy, so little time.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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