I got a call from one of my friends the other day. “Hey,” he said, “what is this thing that Herman Cain won recently? I was at a cookout and he’s got everybody buzzing.” My friend has taken to the North Atlanta country club lifestyle like a duck takes to water. It would take awhile for you to realize that he is originally from Brooklyn, or that his parents emigrated here from a Caribbean island. In the heart of the Georgia country club scene on a warm weekend afternoon, it is real easy for a guy like him to end up surrounded by grills, water, and Republican politics.
I had to laugh as my friend recounted the mood amongst these men who mattered when it came to local GOP politics – those who occupied the leadership and those who supply the money.
“I think this takes care of the race problem,” was the opinion of one of the guests at the cookout who was enthralled by the idea of Cain’s candidacy.
“Sounds to me like your neighbor was checking off a list.”
“Yeah,” my buddy said, quieter now. “I wanted to tell him that every black experience isn’t the same. The experience I had growing up wasn’t Obama’s experience…but it wasn’t really the typical African American one either.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell them that?”
My friend dissembled for a few seconds before he admitted that he was uncomfortable with the idea of telling these guys what was really on his mind.
“You know,” I said, “this is how we get the kind of Republican mindset you see these days. These guys need more feedback from people like you.”
A mostly unspoken but possibly consequential factor in Cain's appeal to conservative voters is his race. Cain is a black Republican -- a pretty rare thing in itself -- seeking to challenge the nation's first black president. His audiences are almost entirely white; at the fundraiser, out of about 150 people, I saw one black couple, not counting Cain, his longtime driver, Cain's wife, and his wife's best friend. When you ask Cain's white supporters why they like him, almost none mention race. But occasionally someone will say they would like to see Republicans have a black candidate of their own who could go toe-to-toe with Obama.
I finally got around to filling my friend in on the recent GOP debate in South Carolina and the surprising revelation Frank Luntz made about the strength of Herman Cain’s support from his monitoring of a live focus group during the debate. We talked about the campaign Newt Gingrich mounted two weeks ago, a campaign that had been pooh poohed in this same country club backyard that normally would be filled with men bragging about how many thousands of dollars they had already donated to Gingrich’s effort.
By then I was warmed up, with thoughts of poll results pushing out the images of the Atlantic beach I’d just left a few hours ago, and gave my friend a five minute rundown on the prospects of the rest of the GOP presidential hopefuls, mindful of the fact that he would be using these as his own talking points while sitting around someone else’s pool on Memorial Day weekend.
Herman Cain himself has acknowledged why he thinks some members of the GOP are tickled pink (pun intended) over his candidacy. “Many Republicans have internalized the Democratic/liberal criticism that they oppose Obama because he is black and that whenever they attack the president on this or that issue, the real motivation behind it is race.” Nonetheless, the comment by my friend’s neighbor that Cain “takes care of the race problem” was still gnawing at me.
“Could you imagine a presidential debate between Barack Obama and Herman Cain?” I asked my friend.
And for awhile, neither one of us said anything, understanding all too well the vagaries of the illogical racial calculus much of American culture has been built on that have made this particular image such a hard thing to visualize in the first place.
Herman Cain has not been vetted by the national mainstream press in any meaningful way. He has no legislative track record that would show the gap between what he says and what he does. And the depth of his small campaign organization is relatively unknown.
It is as if those in the GOP who are willing to equate Cain’s chances to Obama’s because of the color of his skin have totally forgotten how badly their last presidential candidate was beaten by the largest, most strategically sound nationwide political organization any Democratic candidate has ever fielded. And yet, white Georgians by the thousands—Tea Party members, traditional Republicans, conservative independents and libertarians—are joining ranks behind Cain as if he is the Great Black Hope of the Republican Party.
The first four primaries will either make Cain or break him. But if he can upset the applecart in New Hampshire, who knows where a candidacy like his may lead in a race with far too many lackluster choices for the Republican presidential nominee.