Meghan McCain fascinatingly characterized the Republican primaries as akin to dating in that the electorate keeps having one fling after another in the hopes of avoiding the seemingly inevitable marriage to the boringly dependable Mitt Romney. Herman Cain has lasted too long to be called a fling, but the GOP’s ardor for him has blinded it to his obvious ineptness in almost every aspect on which you’d test a candidate (foreign policy, domestic affairs, likeliness to seduce voters outside the party, ability to deal with the media microscope, ability to cope with scandal). The only aspect that he does well is exude charisma, as if he’s the kid who doesn’t study but somehow charms the teacher into passing him.
The party’s love for him has not cooled despite a sexual harassment scandal he continues to handle poorly. (Justin Bieber is handling his nascent paternity scandal with more forthrightness, directness and crisis management wisdom than Cain did.) Cain seems to be surviving the scandal because the GOP truly likes him and because the party really has nowhere else to go but to Romney and because this is a rather tepid scandal compared to what we’ve grown used to from politicians (he abused power but there’s not even allegations of actual sex, so for most people it doesn’t really matter). But there’s also something else. The GOP’s relationship with Cain is more psychologically important than its relationship with any other candidate because Cain is that special thing: the party’s cool new black friend. You ever see white people in the beginning stage of latching on to a new black friend? They’re more excited because it’s something new and cool, a font of new thoughts and experiences. This isn’t simply racial: its the thrill of making a connection with someone unlike you who opens you up to new things, like a woman with a new gay friend.
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Cain has to survive his still metastasizing sex harassment scandal and his many gaffes and his clear lack of competence, experience and serious intellect because the GOP is so excited about him that they are refusing to really kick the tires (or admit to themselves that when they kick the tires they prove flat). Because they know they need him. See, Cain feeds the myth that racism is over.
Some Obama critics feel they have been wrongly painted as racist for the crime of opposing Obama. Some of their critique has been racist, some has been reasonable, some has been unreasonable but what would be leveled at any Democrat. Either way, Cain offers absolution and liberation from feeling like a racist. For how can the party be racist if there’s a black frontrunner? I think many in the party genuinely like him and are won over by his chutzpah and respect his journey from Morehouse to CEO. Fair enough. But the ascension of Cain does not prove that racism is over. Just because the party has a cool, new black friend it’s excited about, doesn’t erase decades of condescending opinions and harmful policies toward blacks.
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Alas Cain, in particular, is not the best person on which to hang your proof that your party isn’t racist. A black man who denies that racism has an impact on today’s world gives great comfort to people who wish for the race conversation, as opposed to racism, to be over. A black man who thinks if you don’t have a job, it’s your fault gives comfort to those on one side of the class war. A black man who wraps himself in minstrelish tropes, like wanting the Secret Service to call him Cornbread and breaking into song at campaign events, surely gives comfort to those who are still not comfortable seeing blacks as Alpha men. A black man who can lead in the polls for weeks without seriously convincing anyone that he’s going to win is like having your chocolate and not getting fat. Or getting the walk-on-the-wild-side thrill of dating a black guy without worrying that you’ll ever be pressured to marry him.
Even if he’s not the nominee, Cain has already proven himself a psychologically transformative candidate for the GOP because the confidence that comes from having “dated” him is like a shield off of which all accusations will bounce. It’s impenetrable to white guilt. We’re not racist, they can now say without fear. One of our best candidates is black.