It's been a tough couple of weeks for Rick Perry, and now, with the Washington Post throwing him into a racial controversy, things are about to get ... much better! Wait, what? Let's backtrack a bit. Yesterday, the Post published a bombshell story about a hunting camp the Perry family has leased on and off since the early eighties. The ranch was long known as, ahem, "Niggerhead," and the name was scrawled on a large rock situated at one of the entrances. Perry says that his family painted over the offensive word shortly after leasing the land, but seven people interviewed by the Post — most of them anonymous — claim the rock and its epithet were visible for years after that.
So far, only one of Perry's GOP rivals has commented on N-WordheadGate: Herman Cain. Asked yesterday about the story, Cain, the only black Republican in the race, lashed out at Perry. "Since Governor Perry has been going there for years to hunt, I think that it shows a lack of sensitivity for a long time of not taking that word off of that rock and renaming the place," Cain said on This Week. On Fox News Sunday, Cain added that there "isn’t a more vile, negative word than the N-word and for him to leave it there as long as he did before, I hear, that they finally painted over it, is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country."
Cain's reaction is certainly understandable. Anyone could find the revelations offensive, and Cain is a black man who grew up in the segregated South. And yet, as Michael Tomasky points out today, it's Cain, not Perry, who could be damaged the most by this story. To understand why, you have to consider that there are two things Republicans hate more than anything. One is being accused of racism, which has happened with increasing frequency since President Obama became president, and, if you ask Republicans, is never, ever justified. Two is unfair treatment by the allegedly biased mainstream media. So among Republicans, the widespread response to the Post story was not, "wow, Rick Perry messed up." It was, "the liberal media is smearing another Republican as a racist!"
It's in this context that the backlash has occurred. Cain wasn't expressing reasonable grievances — he was "piling on" and legitimizing a sleazy political attack. The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis writes this morning, "Cain’s comments were — at best — premature — and at worst, highly irresponsible. It was a cheap shot, and, perhaps a signal that Cain is willing to play the race card against a fellow Republican when it benefits him." Over at the conservative blog Red State, Eric Erickson says the story is "a slander Herman Cain is picking up and running with as a way to get into second place." And the backlash from pundits and regular voters is taking place as we speak on Twitter. Some former Cain backers have already pulled their support:
This looks like it could actually become a serious setback for Cain, and just as his campaign was surging in the polls. Ladies and gentlemen, your modern-day GOP.