Cain Does Not Seem Able

November 02, 2011

Herman Cain's long-shot campaign is becoming an even longer shot due to his poor communication recently. Although his strong debate performances have pushed him to the front of the Republican presidential polls, his rhetorical abilities recently have been quite poor (the photo is one I took of him after a GOP debate in Iowa in August). First, Cain talked about abortion in pro-choice terms, which created confusion for many of his pro-life supporters. While talking with Piers Morgan last month, Cain stated about the issue of rape and abortion:

No, it comes down to it's not the government's role or anybody else's role to make that decision. Secondly, if you look at the statistical incidents, you're not talking about that big a number. So what I'm saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make. Not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn't have to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive issue.
This rhetoric is clearly pro-choice. Cain's answer quickly came under attack from pro-life groups, and was the focus of an attack ad from his Republican presidential opponent Rick Santorum. Cain responded by claiming he was "pro-life, no exceptions." However, when questioned further, Cain clarified his position by noting he is for exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. This suggests Cain has at least three different positions on the issue that is highly important to many of his primary supporters. Despite his attempts to stress he is pro-life (and attack Morgan for supposedly asking a tricky question), Cain's answer on Morgan's show is interesting because it suggests that his personal beliefs do not align with his professed label on the issue. It is simply hard to imagine someone who has internalized the pro-life perspective giving the answer Cain gave on Morgan's program.

Offering even more proof that Cain is not ready for primetime, he has poorly handled claims this week that he sexually harassed female employees while he led the National Restaurant Association. Cain's response to the issue has been nearly a textbook example of how not to respond to a crisis. Scholarship in apologia would suggest Cain has made a couple critical errors. First, rather than completely address the issue when it first surfaced, he has instead tried to say as little as possible. This has allowed the news to slowly trickle out, which keeps the story as a news item and makes Cain appear like he is hiding something. His response to Politico when they first asked him about the charges is one of the worst reactions he could have given because it makes him sound guilty. Here is how Politico described the exchange:
He was then asked, "Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?" 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?"
Since then, Cain keeps slowly adding more details as reporters uncover more information. Cain's best strategy would have been to address the issue completely right away. After all, it will come out eventually. A second mistake Cain has made is that he keeps denying claims and then later admitting the claims. Cain attacked the Politico story as "unsubstantiated," but then admitted he had been accused (which is what Politico claimed in its article). Then Cain claimed he did not know the women received settlements for the claims, but then later admitted he knew they did. Cain's changing story led conservative Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer to challenge Cain for "parsing the words in a Clintonian legalistic way." Quite a fall for someone whose political rise started with a stern challenge to then-President Bill Clinton in a town hall forum! Now, a third woman is claiming she was harassed by Cain even though she did not file a complaint at the time, and a Republican political strategist (who has worked for Cain's Republican presidential opponent Rick Perry) claims he witnessed some of the harassment. Then today, Cain yelled at reporters for asking him more questions about the claims, which is not going to help him.

In both of these cases, Cain is demonstrating an inability to clearly articulate his ideas and keep his claims consistent. Cain's problems on the issue of abortion demonstrate the problems of political labels as politicians try to merely parrot simple phrases without seriously engaging in the complexities of the issues. Cain's problems on the issue of sexual harassment allegations show that politicians should avoid what often seem to be their first instincts in a crisis--to deny and try to avoid the issue as much as possible. These missteps can be fatal for any candidate, but especially for one whose rise in the polls is based on his rhetorical performance and not his record.

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