RUSTHOVEN: What conservatives should learn from the Cain saga

November 12, 2011

RusthovenThe continuing Herman Cain “sexual harassment” saga has important lessons, particularly for those of us on the conservative side of the aisle.

Lesson one: Reflexively defending someone just because he espouses conservative political views is a mistake. The instant the Cain story broke, some on the right rushed to label the charges as politically motivated falsehoods. This was before anyone not directly involved in the (alleged) events could conceivably know the truth.

The rest of us still don’t know. But it appears increasingly possible that there was inappropriate behavior (or worse); the story does not seem to be getting better as events unfold. For all Cain’s adamant denials, some of his responses have also been shifting and inconsistent. Conservatives value truth and fairness. We should be the ones who wait for the facts, even when accusations are leveled at someone who professes to share many of our political views.

Second, let’s not play the “race card.” Conservatives rightly protest when liberals suggest the “real” reason for opposition to President Obama is his color. Of course, there are some for whom this is true. No sensible person believes racism has been eradicated. But the vast majority of those who oppose the president do so because they disagree with his economic and other policies, which—as is ever more evident—are driven by a set of ideological convictions that are deeply held and well to the left.

Conservatives believe such views are profoundly mistaken. This is so whether they are espoused by a Howard Dean or a Barack Obama. Race has nothing to do with it. The Obama approach—familiar indeed to those of us who’ve spent quality time in Ivy League precincts—steadily expands the power of government elites, and just as steadily stifles initiative, economic growth and individual freedom. As an added bonus, it doesn’t work.

Further, political opposition to the president includes growing numbers of independents who helped elect the nation’s first African-American chief executive in 2008, but now believe his performance in office does not warrant another term. It is slander to characterize their disenchantment as a guise for racism.

Conservatives should not take the same tack on the charges against Cain. It is true that it takes some courage to be an outspoken black conservative, which puts one in a distinct minority among African-Americans. There is also no doubt (as discussed below) that much of the mainstream media is covering this story more enthusiastically than it would were Cain a liberal.

But it is wrong to say, as Rush Limbaugh did, that “racial stereotyping” is in play. This is a big story because Cain has become a prominent presidential candidate, and the accusations are serious ones. Conservatives should not contribute to the poisonous practice of assigning racial motivation to political opposition.

Third, conservatives should not be hypocrites. We believe that character defects, including sexual misconduct and lying about it, are pertinent in evaluating actual or would-be presidents. We believed this about Bill Clinton, for whom the misconduct and lying moved from the “allegations” category to being admitted facts.

Yes, much of media has a double standard here, treating those on the left far more gently. On Clinton, the mainstream storyline became that his “personal” life (including lying about it under oath) had no bearing on his serving as president. This effectively conveyed to American youth the message that it was somehow OK for a president to perjure himself, at least on some topics (and at least if the economy was fine).

Then there’s John Edwards. For as long as possible, mainstream media outlets treated stories of his fathering a child by a campaign videographer as tabloid trash. Absent tabloid persistence, it’s unlikely the truth would have emerged. Edwards then endeared himself to women across the political spectrum by saying his unfaithfulness was confined to times when his wife’s cancer was in remission. Who even thinks this way? This is the man who came within one state (Ohio) and one heartbeat (John Kerry’s) of the presidency.

Conservatives should point out the double standard’s hypocrisy, not emulate it. If the allegations about Cain are true in any material respect, he deserves no support and should get out of the race.

Fourth—and most important—let’s get our priorities in order. Sexual misconduct charges against Cain are disturbing and, if true, should be disqualifying. But surely it should be even more disqualifying for a presidential candidate to be as uninformed and unprepared as Cain has often appeared.

A stunning example is his statement that China is “trying to develop nuclear capability”—reflecting his seeming lack of awareness that China has been a nuclear power since 1964. Cain’s later explanation that he “misspoke” provides scant reassurance. The statement reveals a candidate who is or can easily be portrayed as frighteningly uninformed. Under either alternative, conservatives should not want him to be their 2012 presidential standard-bearer.

Conservatives, this writer among them, believe the 2012 presidential election is among the most important in the nation’s history. The incumbent, who ran in 2008 as the agent of “hope and change,” is now already traveling a much different path, which is his only possible route to re-election: painting his Republican opponent as someone too dangerous and/or unqualified to be president. Fair or not, Herman Cain provides a ready canvas for that portrait.

The stakes are too high to allow that to happen. It’s not enough that Cain (or anyone else) may do a better job than some others of rousing the conservative faithful. It’s also not enough that his positions may be more “right” (in both senses) than some GOP alternatives.

The events of recent days underscore what was already a credible argument that Herman Cain isn’t prepared for a presidential campaign, much less the presidency. Even if one disagrees on the merits, or believes Cain is the most “authentic” conservative, the truth remains that he almost certainly cannot win. Let’s be grateful we’ve found that out now, not next October.•


Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan.


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