What is Herman Cain bringing to the Republican Party other than pizza and his brand of pizzazz?
Well, the former chairman of Godfather's Pizza, who pretty much dropped out of the running in the GOP presidential primary because of his womanizing, promises to bring an "unconventional" endorsement when he addresses the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on Jan. 19 — a couple of days before the South Carolina primary — and then gets on his bus to spread the message of "Cain's Solutions Revolution." In the meantime, he's been mangling the Reagan rule against Republicans bashing other Republicans.
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Though he has been the butt of jokes by late-night television hosts and by comedians such as D.L. Hughley, he seems to be enjoying his new, not-easily-defined role. Even so, black conservatives who were dismayed by his humiliating downfall linked to alleged sexual peccadilloes still see a role for Cain, not only in the 2012 presidential election season but also in drawing more blacks to the GOP.
"Cain has power," says Lloyd Marcus, a pundit, Tea Partyer and chairman of the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama. "I know that Cain is going to come back in a big role." Back in December when Cain suspended his campaign, Marcus blogged: "As a black conservative myself, I was excited about black America meeting Herman Cain — a brilliant black businessman who loves God and country. Cain's message was a breath of fresh air, a striking contrast to the absurd victim- and entitlement-minded garbage coming out of the mouths of too many successful rich blacks who say, ‘Yes, we are multimillionaires, but America is still racist, sucks and owes us.' "
Marcus has clearly touched on what has made Cain popular in some black GOP circles. In Utah, for instance, Mia Love, a black woman, is running for a congressional seat and says that every chance she gets, she intends to demonstrate that "there are conservative black Americans everywhere that believe in fiscal discipline, limited government and personal responsibility."
A problem, however, that the party cannot seem to figure out is how to pitch itself to blacks. It tries to tie this current crop who define the GOP to Abraham Lincoln, founder of the party in the 1850s and "liberator" of slaves. But that party, especially in the South, ceased to exist during the civil rights movement when President Lyndon Johnson led a charge for historic legislation guaranteeing blacks the right to use public accommodations like buses and hotels and the right to vote. The current GOP, through its National Black Republican Association, spends a lot of effort trying to convince blacks that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican. That's pretty much a lot of hooey.
The party should have a fairly easy time, in theory, attracting a number of black people, given that blacks make up a higher percentage of churchgoers who are more receptive to appeals based on social and moral concerns.
When Cain was at the top of the I-am-not-Romney pack, he was never a "black" candidate. He was beloved by conservatives in general and, of course, Fox News. He was iconoclastic, witty, articulate and colorful. He was no more a standard-bearer for blacks than Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, or Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is a player in the SRLC.
Nevertheless, says Crystal Wright, who blogs as Conservative Black Chick, "For black Republicans, what he did was a good thing. He put a spotlight on black Republicans." And, says Richard Ivory, a member of Hip Hop Republican, Cain did something else when it came to putting the spotlight on Tea Party members, proving, he said, that "their impulse is not a racial impulse but a deeply felt ideological one."
Those assessments do not mean that Wright or Ivory was not disappointed in Cain. "When you are running an unconventional campaign," Ivory says, "you have to expect that there are things that will come up."
What seems to be drawing blacks to the contemporary GOP — some dating their entry point to Nixon, but most to Reagan — has to do with that long, perceived disrespect by the Democrats; dissatisfaction with the size of government; and impatience with impediments to small business. In Cain — a Morehouse-educated, Christian, family-values man and entrepreneur — all these strains found a friendly face and a witty voice.
As for the future, Wright, an advocate of limited government, says, "He's going to be relevant to the presidential election." She notes that Cain resonates with the Tea Party movement and makes blacks rethink their affiliations. However, in the last month of his active campaign, in addition to the woman issue, an Achilles heel became evident: Cain had no answer to questions about foreign policy or military strategy. The only thing he seemed comfortable selling was his "9-9-9" tax plan — easily made to sound like a pizza ad after his gaffes on other topics.
Chuckling, and only half kidding about Cain's upcoming announcement, Ivory said, "With Cain, you never know. He just might get back into the race!"
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root.