Herman Cain looked startled when Chris Wallace of Fox News quizzed him about the Middle East. “Where do you stand on the right of return?” asked Wallace on his Sunday-morning show of May 22, referring to the idea that a peace agreement could allow Palestinian refugees to make claims on Israeli land. “The right of return? The right of return?” sputtered Cain, who is running for president as a Republican. Wallace prompted him again — “The Palestinian right of return” — but it didn’t help. “That is something that should be negotiated,” replied Cain. Then he repeated himself, which apparently he does when he’s flummoxed: “That is something that should be negotiated.”
Cain’s advisers knew they had a problem. Within hours, they were working on a statement. It went out that evening as a “clarification” in which Cain expressed his “unwavering” support for Israel. But the subject dogged him through the week. “Chris caught me off guard,” said Cain in a follow-up interview with Fox News. “I didn’t understand the right of return. That came out of left field.”
Not really. Just two days after Cain’s mishap, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu thought the right of return mattered enough to raise it in his speech before a joint meeting of Congress. “The Palestinian-refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel,” he said to applause. “Everybody knows this. It’s time to say it. It’s important.”
All candidates blunder, of course. Cain’s confusion recalled a moment from a dozen years ago, when a television reporter asked then-candidate George W. Bush to identify the leaders of four countries. Bush blanked on three of them and looked unready for the job he was seeking. Over time, the future president hit his stride on foreign policy.
Cain may hit his as well, but he’ll have to do it soon if he’s to make the most of a remarkable and unexpected opportunity: After a breakout performance at a presidential debate in South Carolina on May 5, Cain found himself surging in popularity among conservatives. Then two formidable potential rivals, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and 2008 upstart Mike Huckabee, said they weren’t running. By May 23, Cain had made his mark, becoming the nominal frontrunner among Republican presidential candidates, at least according to a Zogby poll of GOP primary voters. Cain’s level of support was just 19 percent, but it was enough to put him ahead of the rest of the gang, from establishment favorites Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney to fantasy candidates such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
It has forced conservatives to confront a question that almost none of them had thought to ask until recently: Is Cain able?
The 65-year-old Cain is in many ways an exceptional candidate. He’s a black man in a party dominated by whites. Even at this early stage, it’s possible to say that he is now closer to capturing the Republican presidential nomination than any black candidate before him, though this probably says more about the lack of competition (including Colin Powell’s refusal to run in 1996 or 2000) than anything else. He’s even managed to turn his lack of experience — unlike others in the 2012 field, Cain never has held elective office — into an asset. When the issue came up during the South Carolina debate, Cain responded with what has become one of his signature quips and perhaps the most notable line of the still-young presidential race. He channeled anti-Washington sentiment, suggesting that the habit of relying on politicians with traditional pedigrees doesn’t guarantee wise leadership: “How’s that working out for ya?”
His non-traditional résumé reveals a compelling biography. The son of working-class parents in Georgia, Cain became the first in his family to attend college, going to Morehouse, a black school for men in Atlanta. He graduated with a degree in math, worked on ballistics for the Navy as a civilian, and earned a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue in 1971. “Yes, they had computers back then,” he laughs. “Those machines filled up rooms and needed punch cards. The notepad I use today has more speed and power.” He could have stayed with the Navy, but the junior rocket scientist felt drawn to business instead. Cain climbed the corporate ladder at Coca-Cola and Pillsbury, becoming a turnaround specialist who revived a group of Burger King franchises in Philadelphia and later took over Godfather’s Pizza, based in Nebraska.
#page#By the early 1990s, he was well known in the restaurant industry for his achievements. He was also becoming a popular speaker. Cain can talk with the booming resonance and lyrical cadence of a preacher — he has in fact served as an associate minister at a Baptist church and substituted for the televangelist Robert Schuller. At a May 21 rally to announce his formal entrance into the presidential race, he conjured up the memory of another prominent Atlanta preacher: “When we wake up and they declare the presidential results and Herman Cain is in the White House, we’ll all be able to say: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last!’”
A performance away from the pulpit first caught the eye of the political world. On April 7, 1994, Cain spoke at Hastings College, about 150 miles west of Omaha. He was supposed to hurry back home and attend a town-hall meeting that was linked by video to Kansas City, where President Clinton was trying to promote a massive health-care bill. “I was tired,” recalls Cain. “I started not to go.” But he summoned the energy and found himself called upon to address Clinton, which he says he wasn’t expecting. He had jotted down a couple of questions but couldn’t remember them. “I went with my gut feeling,” he says. Cain described how Clinton’s proposal would force Godfather’s Pizza to shed employees: “Mr. President, with all due respect, your calculation on what the impact would do, quite honestly, is incorrect.” Clinton was rattled. It was a galvanizing David-and-Goliath, heartland-versus-Beltway moment in a raging debate. Some pundits claim that it played a crucial role in stopping Obamacare’s most ambitious forerunner. The incident certainly launched Cain as a public figure — a successful businessman who wasn’t afraid to take on political causes, even if it meant standing up to the president.
Cain says he voted for Ronald Reagan, but he wasn’t a registered Republican until after the episode with Clinton. In 1996, he was traveling with Jack Kemp, the GOP vice-presidential candidate. “We were in Harlem, and Jack wanted some of his black friends with him,” says Cain. Outside a restaurant, a group of Democrats jeered Kemp’s entourage. “A black Republican?” shouted one. “There’s no such thing as a black Republican!” Cain tried to ignore the taunt, but he couldn’t. “It haunted me for a week. I didn’t want anybody telling me what I could or could not be.” He went home and changed his registration from independent to Republican.
These experiences, as well as his role as head of the National Restaurant Association, persuaded Cain to become a politician. In 1999, he said he was running for president, but he withdrew only a month later. “I saw the amount of money and momentum behind George W. Bush and decided to get out,” he says. He wound up endorsing Steve Forbes. Cain tried for office again in 2004, when he sought the Republican nomination for Senate in Georgia, but he lost to Johnny Isakson. In the wake of this defeat, he hosted a radio show and survived colon cancer. By 2009, he was ready to run for the White House once more. “I didn’t feel compelled to do it before Barack Obama took office,” he says. “After he did, I couldn’t stand it — I couldn’t sit back and pretend he wasn’t taking America in the wrong direction. I also didn’t want to take the chance that the Republican party would not put forward a strong candidate.”
Whether Cain can become a strong candidate remains to be seen. If he fails, it won’t be for a lack of effort. Since July of last year, Cain has made a combined 40 trips to the early primary and caucus states, including 17 visits to Iowa alone, says Ellen Carmichael, his communications director. He has become a favorite on the tea-party circuit. Thousands showed up for the formal announcement on May 21 that he was indeed a presidential candidate. People who watch him in action often become converts. Immediately after the South Carolina debate on May 5, the pollster Frank Luntz hosted a televised focus group of 29 voters. Going into the event, only one of the participants was a Cain supporter. Leaving it, about half were in his camp. A subsequent Gallup survey found that among GOP presidential contenders, Cain’s supporters were the most enthusiastic.
#page#Cain is at his best when he talks about employment — the subject that drove him to prominence when he challenged Clinton and the one that causes the most jitters among voters today. On a wide range of issues, he is a mainstream conservative who favors the repeal of Obamacare, opposes raising the debt ceiling, and believes the United States should drill for oil and develop nuclear power. He approves of Paul Ryan’s approach to the federal budget. On social issues, he is pro-life and against gay marriage. He has a tendency to discuss agendas made up of three to five points — a five-point tax plan, a four-point immigration plan, and so on.
It all sounds reasonable, though Cain also can display an unsettling capacity for incitement. “The objective of the liberals is to destroy America,” he said at the CPAC convention in February. He insists that he really believes this: “They’re not that dumb. Looking at the actions of Obama, I can only conclude that he wants to weaken America.” At moments like this, Cain sounds more like a talk-radio provocateur than a serious candidate for the Oval Office. Going forward, interviewers will encourage this behavior, asking him to speculate about the sinister motives of Democrats and others who disagree with his views.
His opinion of George W. Bush is mixed. “I think he was a good president. He could have been even better.” What would Cain have done differently? “I would have worked harder to pass personal retirement accounts,” he says, meaning that Bush should have done more to reform Social Security. Is there another way in which Bush could have improved? “I would have tried to get Karen Hughes to stay on staff and not go back to Texas. She provided a great balance of advice with Karl Rove. She was the glue that held the administration together.” Anything else? “That will do it.”
It’s an odd critique. Many conservatives have no trouble coming up with lists of Bush-era disappointments: the runaway spending, the approach to immigration, the near-disaster of Harriet Miers as a nominee to the Supreme Court, etc. A good number might even include the failure to tackle the looming crisis of Social Security. Yet few would think to fuss over the absence of Karen Hughes, the onetime White House counselor and undersecretary of state. Her personal devotion to Bush was admirable. Her devotion to conservatism, however, was at best an open question.
So is Cain’s familiarity with any number of issues — not just the fine points of negotiations in the Middle East. What does he think of Bush’s immigration proposals? “I don’t recall what was in it.” How about the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea — negotiated by the Bush administration and possibly going before Congress soon? “I don’t know the details.” Not even on the pact with South Korea which, if approved, would become America’s largest trade deal since the passage of NAFTA? “I can’t say whether I’d vote yes or no.”
There’s a refreshing honesty to some of this — but too much of it begins to appear amateurish. How would Cain have handled the crisis in Libya this spring? “I would have had a plan before it erupted.” What would that plan have looked like? “Not knowing what we knew, it’s difficult to say how I would have reacted.” He means that without access to classified intelligence, he’s reluctant to say more. But knowing what he knows now, would he have dropped bombs? “Don’t quote me saying I would have gone to war. I don’t have enough of the facts.” He’s similarly elusive on Afghanistan — he won’t say what the United States should do there. “My foreign policy is not an instant-grits policy,” he says. “As a successful businessman, I make decisions based on getting as many of the facts and as much of the advice as I can. Based on the input I receive, I’ll make a decision. Right now, without all of the facts, it’s irresponsible to announce a Cain plan.”
Conservatives are currently engaged in their own bit of intelligence-gathering, as Republican presidential candidates step forward and ask for support. Several of them are even trying to articulate their understanding of U.S. interests and explain how they would lead the country. If Cain refuses to do the same, he may discover that his honeymoon with conservatives is a short one.