With the press conference yesterday by Sharon Bialek, a face, a story and a feeling of disgust became attached to the accusations against Herman Cain. Until now there were no actual women, and the allegations by two or more accusers at the National Restaurant Association could have entailed nothing more than an admiring glances or ambiguous innuendo by a jovial Cain. That changed once the allegation of groping by a married man now running for president as an evangelical Christian was put on the table. And with that change in facts came demands for him to be more forthright, if not exit the race.
Conservative icon William Bennett released a statement that was appropriately somber in tone. He noted the obvious double standard in the media but then firmly put that inescapable fact of political life aside:
Herman Cain and his campaign chief of staff, Mark Block, cannot go on as they have. There has been a pattern now that is both unhealthy for our politics and unhealthy for our polity.
Four women are not an insignificant number. One or two anonymous charges, perhaps. Three anonymous charges (where, as I understand the story, Cain knows of at least two of the women) plus one woman who went very public and opened herself up to all manner of investigation are a lot. It is no longer insignificant. Neither is it insignificant that the Cain campaign discounted the charges in the initial stories, saying they were based on anonymous sources, only to make a mockery by blaming other campaigns with less substantiation than the original stories.
If Herman Cain wants to be taken seriously as a public advocate for anything, never mind running for the chief executive and commander in chief of the most powerful and important and blessed country in the world, he needs to give a full press conference dedicated exclusively to this issue and these allegations.
I have watched long enough and held my tongue long enough to give him the benefit of the doubt, but can no longer say this is a witch hunt, “a lynching” to use his word, or any other euphemism. There are allegations out there that matter and they have stacked up. For we who led the charge against Bill Clinton on a number of related issues to continue to blame the media or other campaigns or say it simply doesn’t matter makes us the hypocrites as well.
He warned that if Cain doesn’t do this he should “step out of the race.” I suspect this is the first of many such calls we will hear.
As I read Bennett’s statement, it is as much a plea to conservative voters and media as it is to Cain, who frankly is likely far beyond persuasion by rational voices. There has been far too much conspiracy-mongering, name-calling, race-card playing and denial in a party that fancies itself as the grown-up party. In this case, I suspect some of the loudest voices in talk radio have stepped out on a limb, even beyond much of their audience. The great climb down by Cain defenders, I suspect, is about to begin.
Some conservative leaders were more cautious. Gary Bauer e-mailed me last night: “Until today the charges against Mr. Cain have been vague and anonymous. They are now specific and the accuser has stepped forward. Someone is lying. Given the recent history of slash and burn attacks on conservatives and the many people who vouch for Cain’s character I will still give him the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, whatever the truth is, the events of recent days have only brought joy to the Obama campaign and their many media allies.”
But for many voters who lent him the benefit of the doubt when the more mild allegations of sexual harassment first surfaced, the latest revelation will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
There is an unmistakable political reality here. Cain’s been accused of sexual assault and with no shortage of other candidates it is, as Brit Hume put it, “almost impossible” to imagine he’ll survive as a viable contender for the presidential nomination.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour issued his second warning to Cain in as many days:
“What happens with Cain is going to depend on the facts,” Barbour says. “I don’t know all the facts, but I believe, before all is said and done, that we’ll know the facts. . . . If there is any substance to the claims, if the American people believe that somebody abused women, they are not going to elect him or her president,” he says. “If this were taken as being true, and people believe it’s true, then I don’t think that can be overcome.”
“That’s just not acceptable behavior in our country, particularly if there is a pattern,” he says.
“But we don’t know that,” Barbour cautions. “At this point, it’s very unfair to Herman Cain, or anybody else in America, to be speculating on what will happen if — that’s just very unfair.”
That said, Barbour tells NRO that to beat President Obama, Republicans must avoid distractions. The Cain controversy, he says, has “distracted” the party and the press. In coming days, if Cain “gets the facts out,” he hopes the party and candidate can refocus on “Obama’s policies.”
Even Cain’s BFF Newt Gingrich was stern. As one who should know about scandals, Gingrich advised: “He is going to have to have a clear and compelling explanation for this whole story.” He said of his competitor, who describes himself as a problem-solver: “This is a challenge for Herman and he’s got to solve it.”
In Iowa, a GOP operative who is neutral in the race thinks the chances of Cain's political survival are slim to none. He told me that sort of Houdini act “would take a hugely brilliant, creative and successful campaign team. And James Carville, Mark Block ain’t.” Indeed.
Cain’s negatives were already climbing before Bialek stepped to the microphone. In an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, Cain had a somewhat negative or very negative rating with 18 percent of those surveyed; this month that number climbed to 35 percent.
Cain may try to stick it out for some time, at least until common sense or an ounce of empathy for his wife of 42 years causes him to rethink whether it’s really worth what remains of his reputation to keep this up. And there will be Cain fanatics who stick with him. But for the vast majority of GOP voters this will be it, the signal that the Cain mirage has vanished and they now have to choose an actual nominee. Whether he exits before or after the Iowa caucuses remains perhaps the only question about his political fate.
A look at an array of national and state polling confirms several things: Mitt Romney is holding his own or rising, Newt Gingrich is moving up and Texas Gov. Rick Perry is collapsing. In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll Perry is down to 10 percent, tied with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) in fourth place. In the most recent Iowa poll he is at 4 percent . He’s approaching Jon Huntsman territory. Meanwhile, Perry is rated favorably among GOP voters by only 33 percent. By comparison, Romney has a 46 percent favorable rating.
It would be ironic if Gingrich, of multiple marriages and ethics violations as speaker of the House, were to benefit from Cain’s self-destruction. To the degree that social conservative leaders are now reasserting the importance of character in assessing candidates, it may be that more voters look past Gingrich to Romney, Rick Santorum or Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
If nothing else, conservatives have been reminded how critical a full vetting process is, especially when candidates do not have a long track record in public life. When next a candidate whines about being “flyspecked” by the media, as Cain did this weekend, voters should take that as a flashing yellow light. Anyone who can’t submit his life, personal and professional, to complete scrutiny isn’t going to hack it in presidential politics.