From the start of this nascent GOP nomination race, I’ve been intrigued by Herman Cain. Now that he’s polling well in Iowa, is among the frontrunners in national polls, and was generally considered the winner of the early Republican debate, we’re starting to see more media coverage of him. However, I’m surprised that many political commentators don’t seem to grasp his appeal, and instead trot out the fairly offensive idea that white conservatives are only supporting him so that they can feel better about themselves for choosing a black candidate, especially to be Obama’s opponent. Alex Pareene’s recent Salon article on Cain is an example of this problem: “Cain is a surprisingly powerful candidate, despite the fact that he’s a silly former pizza chain owner, because he makes white conservatives feel very good about themselves”.
If Cain is silly, it’s not because of his resume, and for some reason this obvious source of his appeal is not discussed. Putting aside for the moment the many particular policy issues on which I disagree with Cain’s stated views, I can easily see why he inspires as a candidate. I’m impressed that he has a B.A. in mathematics and M.A. in computer science–two areas that it wouldn’t hurt our elected officials to know more about–from distinguished universities (Morehouse and Purdue). He served the country in the Navy, and then began a long career working his way up to impressive heights in the business world. Though I have heard criticisms of some of his business activities, specifically involving his role on the board of directors of Aquila, his accomplishments as an individual manager are much more impressive: turning around profitability for a region of 400 Burger King restaurants, turning around profitability for the failing Godfather’s within a year and a half, and then eventually buying the company from Pillsbury. When I compare him to someone like Carly Fiorina, whose business experience was highly touted as a qualification for major public office even though she was a pretty lousy CEO, Cain is much more impressive.
We’re also in the middle of a recession or fragile recovery, and some of the biggest decisions in recent years have concerned federal deficits, bailouts, and tax policy. A mathematician and businessman who was also Chair of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Board seems to have decent qualifications for addressing those issues, at least as much as the typical lawyers and career politicians we often see in these races. Combine these experiences with a charismatic personality and compelling speaking presence, and lock-step agreement with the GOP base on most policy issues, and it’s easy to see why Cain is doing so well in the primary polls for someone with relatively low name recognition. He’s also campaigning effectively on the ground-level in Iowa, which is a good strategy for the caucuses. I’ve seen a lot of speculation that Cain could never win significant votes in a Southern state, but he’s from Georgia and his personal story of triumph after growing up in the segregated South is inspiring.
Not everyone dismisses Cain’s candidacy, though: Nate Silver had a nice article about taking Cain seriously, followed by another one today . He also makes the good point that Cain has achieved enough in this race to deserve the media attention, though the media has been taking him much less seriously as a candidate than others who aren’t polling as well. Though I disagree with Cain on too many things to want to see him as President, I do think he deserves to be treated as a legitimate contender in the primaries, and I’d certainly prefer him to many of the other options.