Herman Cain is, according to several new polls, the most popular Republican candidate for president. What’s his secret? “I think of this stuff as I go,” he says. “My messages are spontaneous.”
This week’s Newsweek profiles the candidate who came from nowhere, both politically and personally. Cain boasts a dream biography for any presidential contender: a self-made success story who was born to poor parents, he amassed his fortune with only his business acumen and relentless work ethic to guide him. Now the man who sees himself as the “ABC”—American black conservative—believes he can unseat President Obama. Obama, Cain tells Newsweek, is a “terrible leader,” and Cain presents his own pity-free, get-to-work conservative values as the alternative he thinks Americans are looking for. His sudden and unforeseen rise has jolted the Republican race, and enthralled a restive GOP electorate that wants the establishment out—but can’t seem to bear the managerial, moderate Mitt Romney.
But Cain’s ideology is already proving divisive. Interviews with many black voters and leaders, from Jesse Jackson to Harry Belafonte, show that Cain, the self-described “CEO of Self,” is up against a powerful contingent that wants a different kind of ABC: anyone but Cain.
“It’s not about color,” Cain says. “It’s going to be about the content of your ideas.” And Cain’s ideas are nothing less than a wholesale repudiation of liberal American ideas. His “9-9-9” plan would shift the tax burden so that 30 million Americans who currently make too little to pay any taxes at all would suddenly find themselves owing Uncle Sam. “How do you define poor?” Cain asks. “I define poor [as] you have no money to eat and you have no shelter. That’s poor.”
Cain has even come close to saying that many of those who are poor choose to be, and he bristles at the implication that he is advocating policies that are disadvantageous to people who grew up in circumstances like his. He tells Newsweek he became a Republican in 1996, when he made an appearance in Harlem with Jack Kemp, then Bob Dole’s running mate. At Sylvia’s, a legendary Harlem eatery, an African-American man who was one of a group of Democrats said something like: “There’s no such thing as a black Republican. You guys must be Uncle Toms.”
Cain was deeply offended. “I said nobody had a right to tell me how to think and how to vote,” he says. “I was so adamant that I registered as a Republican.” His first foray into politics was characteristically ambitious: he announced a presidential run in 1999, but dropped out shortly after and endorsed Steve Forbes. Today the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza thinks his moment has finally arrived.
Cain has spent most of his life individualizing the message of the civil-rights movement and insisting color should not play a role in modern politics. But such a view may begin to sound naive if his candidacy continues to alienate African-Americans. In the past week, Cain has had to fend off challenges from multiple black luminaries, including Cornel West, who accused Cain of “coldness toward poor people,” and Syracuse professor Boyce Watkins, who on CNN called him “the perfect racist.”
Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson told Newsweek he thinks of Cain as “Jimmy Stewart in blackface.” “He’s Mr. Smith goes to Washington. The good ol’ boy you just love. He’s the black man white people would prefer over Obama, and he’s the black man that is more like them and who thinks like them. He makes them feel they aren’t racist because they support him at this level and not Obama.’’
“I’m pretty sure African-Americans don’t take Cain seriously, but I’m not sure about white people,” Belafonte tells Newsweek.
Singer and civil-rights activist Harry Belafonte, who made headlines when he called Cain a “bad apple” during a recent interview with Joy Behar, says it’s impossible to accept Cain as a black candidate with those politics. “I’m pretty sure African-Americans don’t take Cain seriously, but I’m not sure about white people,” Belafonte tells Newsweek. “They believe this black man is the real deal. He isn’t. Anyone who says what he says isn’t.”
Cain has fired back at his critics—and in doing so, only inflamed the controversy. “He’s been on that banana boat too long,” he says in response to Belafonte, accusing the 84-year-old performer of trying to “intimidate” people of color who might even consider supporting his candidacy. “Harry Belafonte called me a bad apple. Now he knows he’s not going to shut me up.” And speaking to other media outlets earlier this week, he said West had “been in academia too long” and was hung up on “symbolic stuff.”
Jesse Jackson doesn’t think much of Cain’s politics, either, but he does find fascinating the idea of Cain winning the Republican nomination and choosing Bachmann or Perry as a running mate. “That would be an interesting race if it is between him and Barack,” says Jackson. “Black people, and all people, will decide what side of history they are on when it comes to voting this election. It can’t be about complexion.”