In his 2005 book, They Think You're Stupid: Why Democrats Lost Your Vote and What Republicans Must Do to Keep It, Herman Cain commiserates with voters who have grown weary of Washington politics. Now he's petitioning that same electorate to support his (potential) bid to become the second black president.
So, who is he? The self-described ABC — that's American Black Conservative — is a former CEO of the Godfather's Pizza chain. He has also served stints as an Atlanta radio talk show host, a mathematician for the Department of the Navy and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. So far Cain, 65, is the only prospective GOP candidate to form a presidential exploratory committee.
While he's far from a household name, Cain's advocacy of smaller government, steep reductions in corporate taxes and the so-called FairTax plan, which would replace the federal tax code with a national consumption tax on retail sales, has made him a Tea Party favorite. He's gotten additional buzz over his penchant for making provocative, sometimes outrageous, statements, particularly where President Obama is concerned.
Although Cain has no political experience aside from a failed 2004 run for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, he is confident that his strong business background makes up for it. His experience rescuing Godfather's Pizza from bankruptcy, for example, has informed his plan for America's economic growth. And he says that his slow but steady grassroots ground game just might leave mainstream candidates eating his dust.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Root, Cain talks about race, policy and why he thinks you shouldn't rule out his chances of going head-to-head with Obama.
The Root: You made headlines this week with your comments about President Obama potentially hurting your chances of being elected: "Don't condemn me because the first black [president] was bad." In which ways do you think Obama is a bad president?
Herman Cain: Let's make sure we say his policies are bad. First, his economic policies have failed. We can't spend our way to prosperity. We have spent nearly a trillion dollars, and this economy has not been stimulated. He has promoted programs like Cash for Clunkers, which was a dismal failure, yet he tries to pretend now like it didn't happen. Second, he has broken a lot of promises that he made about transparency, for example, and about unemployment coming down.
The biggest failure, in my opinion, is the forced passage of the health care reform legislation. It was supposed to bring down costs, but it will not because it is not well-structured to begin with. It was supposed to increase accessibility, but it has not. When you have 1,000 companies ask for special exception waivers before it's fully rolled out, and they get those waivers, then something is terribly wrong with this legislation. I call that bad policy and bad leadership.
TR: At the Tea Party Patriots summit in Phoenix last month, you won the presidential live straw poll. Some critics have dismissed that as tokenism, claiming that Tea Party members only picked you as a foil for racism accusations, or that the Tea Party just wants its own version of a black candidate. What do you make of your support from the Tea Party and the skepticism surrounding it?
HC: I find the accusation that they voted in favor of me over the other candidates because they wanted to say they were not racist absolutely humorous. That is the most inaccurate assertion that I have heard. The first inaccurate assertion is that the Tea Party/citizens' movement in this country is racist. I have probably spoken at over 100 Tea Party rally events all over this country — there's been no racism.
Why would they be giving me standing ovations? Why would I be winning straw polls? Now, to believe that they did it to say, "We are not racist" is an insult to my ideas, my ability to communicate, my track record of being a problem solver and what I bring to the party. That is what people are responding to.
They are responding to Herman Cain's message. They're responding to how Herman Cain delivers that message. They are responding to Herman Cain's proven record of being a problem solver in business, and they see how that can translate over to solving some of the problems that we addressed.
TR: How do you plan to take your message to black voters and convince them that the Republican agenda is good for them?
HC: First of all, I have a conservative agenda that is resonating with some Republicans. I separate the label of "Republican" from "conservative." I will run as a Republican in order to get the Republican nomination, but I am a conservative — I have conservative ideological positions, and my ideas for dealing with problems come from a conservative approach.
The way you reach out to black people in this country, and Hispanic people in this country, is to tell them the truth and tell them how you're going to make life better for them. That starts with making this economy better. Outreach to the black community isn't to pander to them. The outreach to black Americans is going to be the same as the outreach to every other American.
The black Americans who have taken the time to listen to me have come back and said, "You know, you make a lot of sense." The ones who have never taken the time to listen to a speech or read one of my commentaries, those are the ones who want to condemn me and call me names simply because I happen to be an American Black Conservative. If they want to label me, use ABC — that's my self-imposed label.
But the good news is this: I've had my own call-in talk radio show for three years up until the end of last month, and I have gotten hundreds of calls from African Americans who've expressed that what I have to say has resonated with them. When they got past the label of "Republican" and past the labels that some people want to put on anybody who has conservative views, it opened their eyes. That's what I'm most proud of, quite frankly.
TR: You've achieved tremendous business success, and I wondered about your thoughts on racism in America today — does it still reduce the chances for African-American success?
HC: Racism in America will never be totally gone. There's always going to be one group that will look down on another group, but we have come a long way from where we were in the '50s and '60s. I'm a product of the '50s and '60s, and one of the reasons that I succeeded in corporate America is that I did not try to climb the corporate ladder with a victim attitude.
I think that one of the things that holds a lot of black Americans back in terms of succeeding in business and corporate America is that they have a victim's attitude. Whenever they are criticized or evaluated or whatever the case may be, they want to see it through the lens of color rather than take a hard look at their performance to determine whether or not the criticism is something they should learn and grow from.
Yes, there's still some racism in America, but I don't think it's the predominant factor that keeps black Americans from achieving some of the highest levels of success. We've had a lot of success, and the ones that have succeeded at the highest levels will tell you how they've dealt with racism along their career, just like I have. It's called performance. Outperform the next person, and they will forget about what color you are.
TR: You're also a stage IV cancer survivor, and you've hinted that your survival might not have been possible under the health care reform law. What adverse effect do you think Obama's plan would have had on your cancer treatment, exactly?
HC: ObamaCare is socialized medicine. Under socialized medicine, the wait time that people have for critical tests like CT scans can be extensive. In some countries with socialized medicine, it can take as much as six months to get a CT scan.
In Canada, the number of CT scan machines per 1,000 people is like one-tenth of what we have here in this country. That's why people have to wait. When my cancer was first diagnosed and I had to get a colonoscopy, if I'd had to wait six months for a CT scan, my chances of survival would have been zero to nil because the cancer that they discovered was very aggressive. When I say that, that's assuming ObamaCare is fully implemented. So, with ObamaCare I probably wouldn't be living today. As of now, I have been totally cancer-free for five years.
TR: Congratulations on beating it.
HC: Thank you. It is a blessing from God. And God said, "Not yet." I said, "OK, God, why are you keeping me around?" He's still answering that question. It might be to run for president of the United States.
TR: In your only other bid for political office, you lost the 2004 U.S. Senate primary in Georgia. What lessons did you take away from that?
HC: First of all, I didn't lose; I just didn't win. There's a big difference. I came within two percentage points of forcing a runoff with then-Representative Isakson, with only a 50 percent name ID. He had over a 90 percent name ID. So the two big lessons that I learned: One, if I were to run again, start early. Second, if I were to run again, hire good people early. I've got an awesome team working with me in these early stages of this whole possibility of saying yes and running. It makes all the difference in the world.
TR: You're still "exploring" a presidential run. At what point will you be ready to declare whether or not you're officially in?
HC: I am not waiting on anyone else. I will make my decision within the next six to eight weeks, based upon some benchmarks that my team and I have established. So far we have hit four out of five majors that we wanted to hit in order to say, "Let's go forward." We've got one more that we need to hit.
I'm not going to identify what it is because I don't want my competition to know what I'm up to. But I can tell you right now, I don't doubt that we're going to hit it. We just have to hit it before we make our final decision.
TR: What are the four benchmarks that you've already hit?
HC: I'll give you two of them. One is the response by activists and grassroots people. I have gotten a strong reception with the Tea Party movement, the citizens' movement, and a lot of FairTax people are in my corner. The reason I won that straw poll that you referred to is because I have a strong ground game building. That was one of the things we were looking for.
Second, we've been able to generate considerable interest on the part of the alternative media. We have an Internet presence that is rivaled only by Sarah Palin, and that is because she is on a popularity road — God bless her, and more power to her. But a lot of people don't realize that we have ways of measuring how commanding a presence I have with the Internet world. So those are two of our benchmarks that have exceeded our expectations, and we have one more river to cross.
TR: You have a strong ground game, but what reception have you gotten from the Republican establishment? Do you think they'd work with or against you as a candidate?
HC: I believe they will work with me as I gain momentum. The good news is they have not tried to get in my way or discourage me. When I ran for the United States Senate back in 2004, designated hitters came to me that were part of the Republican establishment, and they tried to talk me out of running. They had already decided who they wanted to be the Republican nominee in Georgia.
The Republicans for a long time have played "Whose Turn Is It." That's why they keep losing. I don't believe in "Whose Turn Is It." You have to look at what is needed for the party and the country at that particular point in time. But they have not tried to discourage me or create any impediment, and that's all I ask at this point. Let's let the power of the people speak.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.