To those who look at the Herman Cain sexual-harassment story as evidence of a racist media conspiracy, facts are not particularly relevant. That the Politico report’s essential facts have been conceded by the candidate is beside the point. On one level, onlookers may find this exasperating, but it tells us a lot about Herman Cain’s appeal to a segment of the GOP electorate.
He, as his defenders repeat endlessly, is a black conservative who rejects the liberal dogma and has, just until he feared release of the harassment story, avoided playing the race card. Back in May, Byron York wrote:
A mostly unspoken but possibly consequential factor in Cain’s appeal to conservative voters is his race. Cain is a black Republican — a pretty rare thing in itself — seeking to challenge the nation’s first black president. His audiences are almost entirely white; at the fundraiser, out of about 150 people, I saw one black couple, not counting Cain, his longtime driver, Cain’s wife, and his wife’s best friend. When you ask Cain’s white supporters why they like him, almost none mention race. But occasionally someone will say they would like to see Republicans have a black candidate of their own who could go toe-to-toe with Obama.
I asked Cain for his thoughts on this theory of why he appeals to conservative audiences: First, many Republicans have a soft spot for business candidates. Second, they’re particularly drawn to his plain-talk candidacy because they’re dissatisfied with the rest of the GOP field. And third, many Republicans have internalized the Democratic/liberal criticism that they oppose Obama because he is black and that whenever they attack the president on this or that issue, the real motivation behind it is race. Herman Cain, they believe, could take it to Obama without all that racial baggage.
So naturally his defenders (and many who don’t support him but enjoy touting a non-Obama figure) react to a challenge to their desired narrative (a non-Obama African America beats the actual Obama) by placing blame on racially motivated forces, who must be seeking to deprive them of their icon.
It’s not logical to assign such motives to reporters whose story the candidate has confirmed, but it is emotionally satisfying. And moreover, it delays the inevitable realization that the not-Romney candidates are, as one GOP insider put it, beginning to resemble the characters in the “Star Wars” bar scene.
The rally-round-Cain reaction is likely bad news for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is trying desperately to get back into contention. Right now defending Cain — and attacking the threat to the anti-Obama narrative — is far more important to his advocates than giving Perry a second look.
But is it more important than winning back the White House?
In the quiet of their homes and in the privacy of the voting booths, most Republicans, I suspect, will remain the sober voters they always have been. They don’t nominate cranks and candidates from out of the blue; Democrats may take a flyer, but not the GOP. So once they’ve shown themselves indifferent to the facts and unmoved by Cain’s demonstrated lack of finesse (and candor), some will drift to other candidates. Cain will keep a segment of his faithful, maybe even get a bump in the polls in a backlash against the narrative-threateners. But he’s not going to gain permanent new followers.
And he sure isn’t going convince a plurality of GOP voters that he’s the best shot at ridding the White House of the president. Narratives are nice, but winning an election is essential.