The Message Behind Cain’s Message

How to read the presidential candidate's smoke signals in a new campaign ad

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Friends of Herman Cain Inc. / YouTube

The political ad season isn’t even in swing, but now we have the infamous Mark Block video for Herman Cain, a viral hit, featuring the campaign manager telling voters why his boss is great (not that any regular viewer will have a clue who he is or why we should care what he thinks of Cain, since he is working for him). But that’s not the point. This is: he takes a soothing drag of a cigarette in the last shot.

(MORE: The Cain Campaign: Smoke ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em)

This isn’t just a throwaway shot. The cigarette scene is the real message of this ad. Cain, it should be remembered, was the hugely successful head of the National Restaurant Association. During his tenure he fought smoking bans and higher taxes on cigarettes. So far, there is no demonstrable evidence that Cain has done a thing to put Americans’ health front and center, or even in the picture. Block was the Wisconsin state director for Americans for Prosperity, which also opposed state smoking bans.

The ad is a signal to all voters who want the government off their backs. Yes, Virginia, there are still people who don’t believe that cigarettes cause cancer, who think the danger of secondhand smoke is hokum invented by the nanny staters.

But the message isn’t really about cigarettes either. That battle’s been mostly won (though I suppose we may have a fight to repeal public smoking laws on our hands if the anti-regulation folks win the White House. While we’re at it, why don’t we ban seat belts in cars, too?)

Cain’s ad is about regulations. They’re bad. Even if they protect human health. It is only a short hop from cigarette smoke to air pollution. The same kinds of folks who don’t believe the science behind cigarettes and cancer don’t believe that there is a connection between brain damage and the mercury spewing from coal-fired power plants. Let ‘em spew.

(MORE: Wake Up Rick Perry and Smell The Fumes)

It is time for national leadership from the Republicans who brought us the Clean Air Act (that would be President Nixon) and its amendment (George Bush) on the virtue of some regulations: why they are good and necessary, because they are the only way protect the stewardship of communally-shared “assets” like air and water quality. Being categorically against all regulations makes for dangerous rhetoric. But it is an effective sledgehammer.

Cain’s regulation message is as simple as his tax plan: zero. His health message, too, is as simple as his tax plan. And he’s not alone; his attitude is shared by Governor Perry and Michele Bachmann and the others. The Republican hopefuls have shown absolutely zero moral obligation to use our laws to address problems like the environmental factors that damage our health. These are not problems that any individual can address or control on her own. What’s more important to the GOP seems to be the desire to safeguard every polluter’s right to blow smoke on others.

As for health problems? Here’s a simple plan: 911.