The news media has been trying to figure out whether Herman Cain, now leading the Republican polls, can actually win the nomination. The question may be occurring to Cain as well. To this point, he has been using a putative candidacy to execute a business plan, taking advantage of free publicity to increase his value as a talk show pundit and motivational speaker. He is not doing any of the things that one would do to run for president — build an organization, campaign in early primary states, contrast himself with rival candidates, or court the party Establishment. It’s possible he may, seeing his unexpected polling surge, decide to start doing these things at a late point. Until then, whether Herman Cain could win the nomination is a hypothetical question.
What Cain’s polling surge does tell us is the central place that race occupies in the conservative psychology. The liberal narrative of race in America flows from Lyndon Johnson’s famous comment in 1964 that committing the Democratic Party to supporting civil rights, after decades of upholding white supremacy, would turn the South Republican. Conservatives view this as a calumny. In the Republican view, they are not the direct lineal descendants of the white southern reactionaries who upheld segregation, but equal heirs to the legacy of Martin Luther King. Indeed, they are even the more true heirs, because they see the world in color-blind terms as King desired, rather than constantly using race as a weapon the way liberals do.
The emergence of Barack Obama upon the national scene activated the conservative sense of racial persecution. Obama himself has referred to race only rarely, but in the right-wing mind, he is endlessly accusing his political opponents of racism. Cain’s candidacy offers the perfect balm for this festering wound upon the conservative psyche. Here is Cain saying, over and over again, what conservatives believe — that Obama uses his race to delegitimize criticism of any kind.
What more credible messenger could exist to point out this dastardly tactic? And then, by disarming Obama of his most effective weapon, conservatives believe they can finally combat him on even ground and expose the failure of his ideas.
Cain’s candidacy is putatively non-racial. Both he and his supporters insist that his popularity solely reflects the power of his ideas. As conservative pundit Mona Charen puts it:
it wasn’t that Republicans and conservatives were acting upon an affirmative action spirit — trying to prove that they too could pull the lever for a black guy. It’s that Herman Cain delivers a great speech, is willing to propose solutions commensurate with our problems, and is possessed of a remarkably sunny personality.
But conservatives cannot resist pointing out the racial implications of his rise. Charen’s column, quoted above, is headlined, “‘Racists’ for Cain.” The supposed irony of his skyrocketing support is too delicious for them to ignore. And Cain himself does, in fact, invoke race constantly. The context is almost always to absolve conservatives of racism, to assure them that they are less racist than the left. Here he is referring to the “Democratic plantation.” Here he is saying that, “A lot of these liberal, leftist folk in this country, that are black, they’re more racist than the white people that they’re claiming to be racist.” Here he is announcing that “most people have gotten past color, especially the Republican party.”
Even if Cain decided midstream to switch from business plan pseudo-candidate to actual candidate, it is difficult to believe that many of his putative supporters would actually pull the lever for him. Announcing one’s support for him is a statement, a finger in the eye of Obama and the liberals, not an indicator of a likely vote.