Michael Tomasky: Herman Cain is Mitt Romney’s Worst Nightmare

How will Romney dispatch Cain? That’s Romney’s biggest challenge, says Michael Tomasky.

Kim Kim Foster-Tobin, The State / MCT / Getty Images

Everyone is calling Herman Cain the new “flavor of the month” without always properly emphasizing why we’ve seen such a succession of flavors—to wit, that conservatives are desperate not to have to vote for Mitt Romney. This is the central fact so far of the GOP-nomination race, and Romney’s central problem. He has two possible ways to fix it. One is to destroy Cain’s conservative bona fides. The other is to shore up his own. Both are going to be really, really hard for him to do.

With regard to Rick Perry, Romney and his people found the Christmas gift of the absolute perfect issue. If a genie had appeared to Mitt Romney’s wife and given her the option of naming an issue that would bring down Perry on the right, she couldn’t have fabricated something more perfect than in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants. Tea Party hatred of illegal immigrants is pristine. And Romney’s line—a “$100,000 college discount”—was brilliant. It crushed Perry. Did you see the latest Florida GOP poll? He’s at 5 percent. And behind Gingrich. “Behind Gingrich” is a rather grave marker, the political equivalent of “less articulate than Miss Teen South Carolina 2007.”

I still don’t count Perry out. It’s a long campaign. You may have noticed that he outraised Romney in the third quarter, $17 million to $14 million. But even if Perry does claw his way back, there’s a dark spot on his soul now as far as right-wingers are concerned. I kind of admired the way Perry defended that law, but I’m hardly the target audience.

Cain, however, is an altogether trickier matter for Romney. Cain appeals to right-wingers in deep emotional ways, ways that have only a little to do with his extreme political views. Conservatives just reflexively adore businessmen. This is one of the major differences between conservatives and liberals. Liberals aren’t impressed by most business people. Big deal, liberals think; I could have gotten rich, if my goal in life was peddling more Whoppers to a populace that doesn’t need them. (Cain made his mark at Burger King before Godfather’s Pizza). Instead, I wanted to educate children or defend the downtrodden and the tortiously wronged. Liberals see a rich man and think of Balzac. But conservatives think liberals and Balzac are seditious and crazy. Yes, Romney is a rich man, too. But the problem is no one knows what he does, or did, at Bain Management. He didn’t make stuff. Cain made hamburgers and pizzas. They’re rather popular. Point Cain.

Cain’s race helps him too. There can be little doubt that being black has been a huge plus for him so far. First of all, even conservatives understand he grew up facing obstacles Romney, with a rich dad, most certainly did not. (Cain’s father was a janitor.) But more than that, it’s that Cain isn’t one of “those” blacks. A right-wing black man who speaks of having “left the Democratic plantation a long time ago” supplies a jolt of emotional electricity that Romney just can’t get anywhere near.

These two factors make Cain a much tougher target for Romney than Perry was. Perry is just another pol. But Cain represents and speaks for right-wing anti-establishmentarianism, and he does it with a vengeance. Even the fact that his 9-9-9 tax plan adviser isn’t a real economist is a plus. Real economists hang out in places like Cambridge and Berkeley. Who needs ’em?

Maybe Romney will find an issue. Maybe Cain employed illegals or something. But since he’s never held office and has no public record, such attacks risk seeming personal. Unless they’re obviously serious enough to stick, Cain can wail about being persecuted because he’s an outsider and so on and emerge stronger than before.

If Romney can’t effectively make Cain less attractive to conservatives, his only other alternative is to try to make himself more appealing to conservatives. The only way to do that is with policy proposals that will placate a right-wing electorate. Those very proposals are, of course, the kind that will hurt him in a general election when he’s trying to move back to the center. And it will just expose him to more charges of inauthenticity, which will be correct and will ring true.

I’m not saying Cain is going to win. But I’m not sure he fades away so easily. Romney is probably going to have to contend with him for a while. Cain might just be for conservatives what Barack Obama was for liberals in 2008—a kind of wish-fulfillment candidate. To liberals, Obama validated their idea of America’s noblest self. To conservatives, Cain may be the best available validator of their urge to repudiate everything that Obama America stands for. He’ll more likely rise or fall on whether he has it in him to be that person, that cynosure of others’ yearnings, than anything Romney does or doesn’t say about him.