Herman Cain said he was going to run a new kind of presidential campaign, and now, with his response to allegations of sexual harassment, we can see what he means. Politicians accused of sexual impropriety may use all manner of sleazy tactics to undermine their alleged victims, but they don’t usually do so openly or proudly. And they tend at least to pretend to take the accusations seriously, rather than joking about them. But Cain, as he often reminds us, isn’t a typical politician, and so he has staked out new frontiers of boorishness.
It began the day after Sharon Bialek’s press conference, when the Cain campaign sent out an email to reporters about the accuser’s “long and troubled history, from the courts to personal finances.” Nothing in the email showed that she had a record of dishonesty, but it did show that she’d had money problems and that she’d been involved in a paternity lawsuit. The implication was clear—she’s a gold digger and a slut. As Alexander Burns wrote in Politico, “That’s the kind of research hit you’d expect to see against another candidate, rather than a woman whom nobody had heard of until yesterday, when she accused Cain of personal misconduct.”
Such attacks are usually leaked to the press or made by surrogates, which made the Cain campaign’s frontal assault extremely unusual. It was meant to send a message: women who come forward can expect to be thoroughly trashed. Sure enough, Cain’s celebrity attorney L. Lin Wood, whose previous clients include John and Patsy Ramsey, Gary Condit, and Anna Nicole Smith’s boyfriend Howard K. Stern, warned that other potential accusers should “think twice”.
The threats seem to have worked. Cain accuser Karen Kraushaar had been trying to get two other alleged victims to come forward for a joint press conference, and her lawyer indicated that if she couldn’t, she would do one with just Bialek. Then a report surfaced that she’d made unrelated complaints in her new job about being unable to work at home after a car accident, and about a sexist email sent around by a manager. (“Computers are like women…As soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending half your paycheck on accessories for it.”) Overnight, she was transformed from a Republican with a solid professional reputation into another flaky PC whiner. By Thursday, with the other women still, understandably, refusing to go public, she decided she wasn’t ready to speak out.
In a normal primary, other candidates might stick up for these women and demand answers. But Cain has so perfectly channeled the conservative base’s sense of victimization that his rivals can’t hit him where he’s potentially vulnerable. When he was asked about the harassment charges at the CNBC debate Wednesday, the crowd’s angry booing quickly shut the whole line of questioning down. His fundraising is way up on the accusations, and he’s joking about them on the campaign trail. On Friday, a supporter asked him about Clarence Thomas accuser Anita Hill, and Cain nearly doubled over laughing as he replied, “Is she going to endorse me?”
There is, of course, a farcical element to this story. But there’s also something very serious and ugly going on, an escalation of acceptable tactics that can be used against women who make accusations against powerful men. That precedent will remain, even after the absurdity of the Cain campaign is over.