Herman Cain’s surprise win at the Florida straw poll was not that much of a surprise. But, it told us a lot about the state of the GOP nominating contest and about the shape of the Republican Party. The result is more significant than the paltry coverage would suggest – at Politico.com’s homepage this morning, Cain’s win barely got a mention.
No one should have been completely surprised by Cain’s showing. Before the straw poll, many experts thought that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s weak showing in last week’s debate might hurt him but few suggested he would get shellacked. Cain won 37% to Perry’s 15 percent. This result tells us more about Perry than it does about Cain: the Texas governor is quickly turning into this year’s Fred Thompson, the candidate who comes in with expectations he cannot fulfill.
But, the result also told us something about popular disgust with politicians, especially within the Tea Party movement. The reason I was not so surprised by Cain’s decisive win was that, earlier in the day, I had read an article in the Post about the growing anti-incumbent fury in the land: “Veteran political analyst Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, said if lawmakers continue down this path, the 2012 election could bring ‘the biggest, broadest anti-incumbent year of post-war history,’ with voters indiscriminately tossing out lawmakers in both parties, pulling the lever ‘against anybody’s name they recognize….The debt ceiling debacle is almost a horrible metaphor: It’s as if a bomb went off at 800 Pennsylvania Avenue and sent shrapnel flying in every direction,’ Cook said. ‘I don’t know what these guys think they’re doing, but it looks like they’re committing political suicide.’”
There are two groups who are decidedly angry at Washington’s gridlock and consequent inability to achieve anything, and a third group, which is not exactly angry but whose motivations are both difficult to predict and of supreme consequence. The first group consists of those moderate, independents who do not much like the parties to begin with and blame excessive partisanship for the gridlock. The second group consists of leftie intellectuals who just can’t see why the entire country doesn’t view politics the way they do and are frustrated, for example, that there is no public option in the health care debate. The first group is usually decisive in elections and the second group either votes for Ralph Nader or backs the Democrat.
It is the third group, the Tea Party, that is difficult to gauge at this point. They are not entirely frustrated by gridlock in DC, especially if the alternative is some kind of compromise. They respond well to the “just say ‘No’” approach to economics that has become the GOP creed. If a candidate like Perry does not measure up because he adopted a Texas version of the DREAM Act, they will look for someone else and who better than a non-politician who fits neatly with both the Tea Party’s anti-elite populism and its penchant for catchy sloganeering that seems to explain the world.
Cain has milked his lack of political experience and has also displayed his qualities as an inspirational speaker. But, ya know – don’t you just hate inspirational speakers? Remember Tony Robbins, whose television advertisements used to be ubiquitous. All that nonsense about you being everything you want to be. (Note to Mssrs. Robbins and Cain: I should like to be Tsar of all the Russias. Can you inspire me to my goal?) It is pretty thin gruel and it does not wear well over time. Anybody else tired of Cain’s empty-headed responses to tough questions – I will gather the right team, we will look for real solutions – all this managerial process stuff, which could be very centrist, even Dukakis-like, but when tied to a radical agenda, it just sounds loopy. Candidates who are not politicians tend to get tripped up over simple things, finding themselves unable to explain how a given policy works, or confusing countries abroad, and when they trip up, they tend to double down. If Cain is smart, he will start mimicking Sarah Palin, creating an anti-media narrative, so that when he does trip up, he can blame it on the “gotcha” press, and his backers will accept that. Still, I don’t see Cain becoming the GOP nominee. I so see him keeping the anti-establishment flame alive long enough that Mitt Romney becomes toxic to the Tea Party and they consider bolting the GOP if one of their candidates doesn’t win.
The anti-politician stance of Cain and the Tea Party more generally is decidedly un-Catholic. At a recent event at Fordham, John Carr, who heads the Social Justice team at the USCCB, said: “At this moment of intense cynicism and frankly justifiable frustration with the political process, the most countercultural thing the church teaches and the bishops have said is that politics is a good thing, that participation in public life is a moral obligation and an essential part of being American and Catholic.” That’s right. Politics is not an evil thing, an infringement on human liberty, it is a good, one that we should pursue as Catholics and as Americans, indeed a moral obligation. I hope one of the panelists at a subsequent debate will confront the GOP candidates with Carr’s quote.
Cain’s win is mostly a verdict by GOP activists that they are very unsatisfied with the slate of candidates and, just so, we can now discern a narrative. First, Michele Bachman jumped into the race and moved up in the polls, but has since fallen precipitously after some less than stellar debate performances and Perry’s entrance into the race. Perry jumped in, became the front-runner over night and had underwhelmed everybody since. Romney has not been able to capitalize on his opponents’ collapses – he, not Cain, should have been people’s second choice in the Florida straw poll but he wasn’t. It is getting too late for a new candidate to jump into the race: deadlines for filing to get on the ballot loom. For all of Obama’s weaknesses, his chances are re-election are vastly improved by the lackluster GOP field.