In my view, Cain — the gospel-singing, talk-radio-hosting, former Burger King exec and Kansas City Fed chair — is long on style and short on solutions. He's heir to a long line of Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque politicians who mistakenly think they can easily translate private-sector accomplishment into public-sector effectiveness.
But when MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell went out of his way Thursday to highlight Cain's absence from the civil rights movement, he may have taken criticism of Cain a step too far.
When he questioned Cain for "sitting on the sidelines" during the civil rights movement, based on the comment in Cain's new book that he followed his father's advice and "stayed out of trouble" during the sit-in era, O'Donnell — one of the smartest guys on TV — watered down what was up to that point a strong interview with Cain, who has surged to 16 percent and 17 percent support in two recent presidential primary polls.
Just like Rachel Maddow's famous 2010 interview with Sen. Rand Paul — when she grilled him for 15 minutes about his quasi-libertarian stance on segregated lunch counters — by drilling down on Cain's personal civil rights history, O'Donnell wasted a chance to thoroughly vet Cain's ideas on the critical issues of today: taxes, economic recovery and Cain's view of three ongoing wars.
If Cain — the only black candidate in the GOP field — had opposed the gains African Americans made in the civil rights era, then that would have clearly been a topic worth pursuing. But while the fact that Cain didn't march or sit in during his college years says something about his persona, it doesn't disqualify him from leading in the 21st century. To say otherwise wrongly implies that there's only one way to be a black leader.
And there is more than one way to be a black leader.
Plus, when you recall that O'Donnell was once chief of staff for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, that's the wrong angle for him to take, anyway. If there's one topic that O'Donnell could have really shed some light on, it's Cain's ideas on taxation.
Since 999's main selling point so far is that in comparison to other candidates' plans it's really simple — almost too simple — why not spend more time pushing Cain to get specific about how it would actually work?
Almost certainly, O'Donnell was trying to underscore the hypocrisy of Cain's past statement that President Barack Obama is not a "real black man," or his recent assertion that African Americans who vote Democrat are "brainwashed" — scurrilous charges for which Cain should be called out. But O'Donnell would have been better off just asking those questions rather than digging into passages of the candidate's recently released This Is Herman Cain! for evidence that Cain has a less than sincere commitment to the black community.
Instead of finding out more about 999, viewers learned that a guy who came out of school to work on missile technology for the Navy and then became a fast-food franchise turnaround specialist was — surprise — not on the front lines of protest during the '60s. And now Cain has one more plank in his platform to claim that liberals have it in for conservative blacks. For a progressive like O'Donnell, it's a lose-lose.
There's plenty in Cain's record that deserves scrutiny: He's expressed antipathy toward Muslim Americans, gays and many fellow African Americans, and often refers to anyone who doesn't agree with him as "stupid people" who are "ruining America." But before asking what Cain was doing during the civil rights movement, it might first have been worth asking: What's the point?
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.