This morning, news broke that newly anointed Republican front-runner Herman Cain may have a history of sexual harassment. Seems like that would be a big deal! And yet, not really: Cain appears ready to continue his campaign-slash-book tour with a barely perceptible amount of turbulence. Why the lack of fuss and bother?
1. Conservatives are rallying around Cain. This morning, there were comparisons galore to Clarence Thomas and allegations of a new liberal “high-tech lynching.” Politico’s Cain story provides the perfect opportunity for them to cry bias, in fact, and this will only strengthen their resolve in supporting Cain-qua-symbol (of both the tea party and of black Republicans). They can afford to do this because, on some level, they don’t really think he’ll be the general-election candidate.
2. Liberals don’t take Cain seriously anyway. They’re happy to see Cain leading Romney, who according to the conventional wisdom is the most dangerous candidate against Obama. If Cain takes a beating, sure, it’s a fun moment of Schadenfreude, and if someone else wants to dig to the bottom of the allegations, great! But because the entire Herman Cain campaign seems more like a punch line than an actual run for the White House, there is a decided lack of outrage. Instead, when Cain amiably agreed to close his supposed pressure-cooker of an appearance at the National Press Club today with an impromptu well-delivered spiritual, the reaction was bemused. Fire up another one for the Daily Show clip reel!
3. The alleged victims are unlikely to talk. According to press accounts, the two women who accused Cain of sexual harassment aren’t going to talk to the press, subject to non-disclosure agreements as part of the payments they received from the restaurant lobbying group he was running at the time. So while the details might leak out (we’ve got Cain’s relatively anodyne-sounding version of the facts already), the likelihood of “pubic hair on a Coke”–type revelations is much, much lower. Not to mention that the incidents took place a decade before cell phones or Twitter.
4. Sexual harassment is so nineties. Cain is also probably benefiting from a sense that perhaps the aggressive sexual-harassment litigation of the Clarence Hill era led companies to err on the side of caution when settling cases back in the nineties, when the claims were lodged against Cain, too: It’s less of a cultural hot-button issue now, because lines have been more clearly drawn about what constitutes harassment, and the enforcement of those lines has become more consistent. Allegations of workplace sexual impropriety — at least nonspecific ones like these — seem less likely to capture the public imagination in quite the same way that they might have fifteen years ago, when the concept of suing an employer for uncomfortable innuendo was a relative novelty (when one of the most popular sitcoms of the era, Ally McBeal, served up a series of plotlines around increasingly ridiculous sexual-harassment claims) — and when people felt very strongly that stronger laws backing such suits were either necessary to progress, or PC-ness Gone Wild. Cain told Greta Van Susteren that he was just comparing a woman’s height with his wife’s, and for people already inclined to believe that people were suing willy-nilly over sexual harassment back then, this looks like just another instance of that kind of overreach.
Why the Story Might Stick: It’s not the story itself, it’s the way his campaign has handled it. Cain’s bobbled the hot potato from the moment it was tossed his way. He knew there was the possibility this might get out — the Politico story included the detail that at least one staffer was briefed on the claims — but there seemed to be no plan of action for dealing with the fallout. First, there was his weird response to the reporter who confronted him about it (“He breathed audibly, glared at the reporter and stayed silent for several seconds. After the question was repeated three times, he responded by asking the reporter, ‘Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?’”). Then there was the odd performance at the National Press Club, which Cain is touting proudly on Twitter. The song might have been fun fodder for political wags, but it’s not the response of a serious candidate.
Plus, the story he told Greta Van Susteren is at very best an elided one that gives off the whiff of purposeful forgetfulness. There were allegedly multiple incidents involving more than one woman; all Cain says he can recall was this one rather bizarre incident involving his wife being “this tall”? The crisis non-management here is the real issue: Cain’s political operation doesn’t seem well equipped to deal with the pressure of a campaign. If he takes a hit in the polls because of this incident, that’s probably why.