Thoughts on the Politics of the Sexual Harassment Charges Against Herman Cain
Remarkably, no one is providing any real defense to the charges that GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain sexually harassed women in the late 1990s, when he headed the National Restaurant Association in Washington, DC. Instead, Cain and his campaign’s responses have only fueled the story with conflicting and incomplete explanations, mixed with attacks on the media. Fox News, which has come to Cain’s defense, has offered distorted information, along with attacks on the “liberal” media. And noticeably, Cain himself has chosen a course of action that may have lasting and ruinous consequences for him, as it has for others who have taken similar approaches.
A Quickly Broken Stonewall
When Politico broke the story that GOP nomination frontrunner Cain had been accused of sexual harassment, he and his campaign stonewalled, initially refusing to discuss it. That always causes suspicion. As the story played out during its opening run, Cain and his campaign provided tightly scripted yet sometimes conflicting responses to deny that anything was amiss. This created more suspicion.
By the end of the first day, Cain admitted that one of the claims against him had been settled by the general counsel for the National Restaurant Association. Cain did not recall any of the facts, the woman’s name, or the existence of a second complaint. He only recalled that the settlement had been for only a few months’ pay, another response that was soon proven wrong.
Rather than put the story to rest, Cain and his campaign raised new questions about the candidate’s candor. Sexual harassment is a nasty and ugly activity. Covering up such conduct for a candidate is not only risky, but it can later result in dire consequences.
On Monday, November 7, my co-columnist here at Justia’s Verdict, Joanna Grossman, will present an examination of the legal side of “sexual harassment,” an area in which she is expert. In this column, I am going to look at the politics of Cain’s handling of the matter.
Cain’s Ineffective Responses Have Not Ended the Story
Typically, there is a very small time frame within which to handle an explosive issue like a charge of past sexual misbehavior during a presidential campaign. Most presidential campaigns hire investigators to explore every inch of a candidate’s life, so they have a full understanding of, and explanation for, such issues if they arise during the campaign. Thus, if such an issue does arise, they are fully prepared to put the matter to rest.
If the Cain campaign had undertaken any such preparation for the sexual harassment charges, they certainly fooled everyone with their botched responses. And if they did not anticipate this information ever surfacing, that speaks to Cain’s lack of qualifications for the job he seeks. A presidential campaign, its organization and operation, is a first test of presidential leadership, and a candidate cannot succeed without a solid organization and operation.
The responses of Cain and his campaign have not come anywhere close to putting this matter to rest. Rather, information, new revelations, and commentary on the matter continue to dribble out, and are likely to do so for weeks to come. Rather than address any true specifics relating to the charges, Cain and his campaign have chosen to attack the messenger(s), which deflects attention (but only for a short time), and they have offered general denials (which, if untrue, will sooner or later prove very costly to the candidate’s chances).
In dealing with the old charges, Cain has chosen a course of action that appears to fall between two approaches that each worked, in the short term, for Associate Justice Clarence Thomas and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the Thomas and Schwarzenegger approaches in the long run failed terribly. Given the facts that are already publicly known regarding Cain’s situation, this was a very bad choice.
The Consequences Of Following the Clarence Thomas and Arnold Schwarzenegger Models of How to Respond to Sexual Harassment Claims
We know that Cain is familiar with Thomas, because he recently praised Thomas and apparently Cain approves of Thomas’s strategy in the handling of the Anita Hill charges: Attack the messenger, as well as the accuser’s motives, while denying the charges. It is impossible to believe that Cain is not also well aware of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s situation, given the extensive news media coverage it received. But neither Thomas nor Schwarzenegger is exactly a good model to follow when dealing with sexual harassment charges.
If a person is truly innocent, or if there was a good-faith misunderstanding between the parties involved, then sexual harassment charges are not fatal to a public person, but such charges must be dealt with openly and fully (and, in the case of a good faith misunderstanding, in a manner that does not further harm the victim of harassment). Cain has claimed he was falsely charged, and yet, there was a financial settlement. He has impugned the reputation of one of the victims, who settled with an agreement to keep the circumstances confidential, and thus cannot fight back. Cain is on a path followed by Thomas and Schwarzenegger, who found that these issues do not go away, and can pretty much ruin a reputation.
The Clarence Thomas Precedent
Justice Thomas dissembled about sexually harassing Anita Hill during his October 1991 confirmation hearing. This was clear to many at the time. And by 1994, two investigative journalists with impeccable credentials, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, provided overwhelming evidence that Thomas had lied in their book Strange Justice.
While Thomas was nevertheless confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court, he so tarnished himself in the confirmation process that he has made himself one of history’s least distinguished justices. Had he told the truth, explained his mistake, and apologized, he probably would have still been confirmed. Rather, he accused the Senate Judiciary Committee of engaging in a “high-tech lynching,” called his accuser a liar, played the race card, and escalated the issue. Apparently Cain thinks Clarence Thomas won. History does not see it that way.
The Arnold Schwarzenegger Precedent
Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lied about groping women when the charges arose during his campaign, but prevailed in the race because he was the favorite and because he half-apologized to the women involved, pretending they had misunderstood his playful nature. Moreover, Arnold was given the benefit of the doubt by many when he enlisted his wife, Maria Shriver, to attest to his good character. In retrospect, he clearly lied to his wife as well.
More recently, when it was revealed that Arnold had fathered a child with a woman working for him and his wife at their home, keeping the child and liaison hidden for a decade, it ended his high-profile marriage and destroyed his relationship with his children, who are apparently considering changing their name from Schwarzenegger to Shriver. He may have been Governor of California but his political career is over, his reputation is ruined, and he is a detested figure for many because of his actions. Lying public figures seldom succeed.
How Cain’s Approach Falls Between Thomas’s and Schwarzenegger’s
Cain, it appears, has chosen a course of action that falls between the Thomas and Schwarzenegger approaches. It is too late for Cain to reverse that course now. So he is surely hoping that nothing more untoward will surface to take the story beyond its present she-claimed-he-denied status. But here, he has made a miscalculation: This story will play out as long as Cain is a viable candidate, and until it finds its consequences. Cain and his aides certainly understood that point when they did not—or were unable to—address the seriousness of the underlying charges. So this story will continue to hang over the Cain campaign, ebbing and flowing as the news media gathers additional details, not to mention as other victims may come forward.
If, as Cain claims, he has been falsely accused, then why—when he was first confronted by Politico, some ten days before the site released the story—did he not assemble all the facts, and lay them out for the public to examine, if the facts reveal that he is innocent, as he claims? It seems extremely likely that, in fact, Cain is not innocent, just as Thomas and Schwarzenegger, before him, were not. Thus, as long as his campaign lasts, he will be spending time trying to divert public attention from these charges. In the short term, a media-despising public (which is a sizeable number) will rally to Cain’s side. But over the long term, Cain stands to be destroyed by this matter.
Aside from the impact that these charges may have on Herman Cain’s wife, it will not have the historic impact of a United States President taking office under a dark cloud. That is because Herman Cain will never make it to the White House. He is running one of the worst campaigns in modern history.
Cain Is Unqualified to Be President and His Campaign Is Totally Inept
Most students of the presidency and presidential campaigns, including yours truly, have largely ignored Herman Cain’s candidacy—for good reason. Notwithstanding the fact that Cain has risen in the GOP polling to front-runner status, he is a passing fluke, and media phenomenon, and his campaign is not built to go the distance in a contemporary presidential race. Herman Cain is a political circus act, a one-man show, and an accident happening, which is why he is attracting attention.
Cain is simply not presidential timber, a fact that he has put on display throughout his campaign. His poorly-thought-out positions, his recitation of the right-wing Republican canon, his ghost-written instant-best-selling lets-make-a-few-bucks-on-the-side book, his remarkable lack of knowledge of the world and the United States, his willingness to break into a favorite hymn for the crowd, his pleasing public manner on stage—while this all makes for a good show, Americans do not want a great pretender and a total showboat in the Oval Office.
It is obvious that Cain is, in fact, winging it. While he may appeal to the fringe of the Republican Party, the radicals and fanatic activists who want to screw up American government, which they do not understand, Cain has failed to attract and assemble a professional campaign team. (Remember, about 20 to 25 percent of the GOP would nominate Attila the Hun as their GOP standard-bearer, so Cain’s poll numbers mean little in the big picture. They are sufficient for both small and large benefactors to bankroll Cain’s efforts for awhile, but not to raise the likely billion dollars next year’s contest will demand from each party’s nominee.)
Republican Party pros and elders have shown little to no interest in lending Cain a helping hand, and have been disinclined to recommend and fund the professional help he needs. That is because they are more amused by, than interested in, his candidacy. As I write this column, not a single member of Congress has endorsed Cain. Moreover, the GOP pros with whom I have chatted off-the-record view Cain as a total political novice, a man who is in way over his head. Not only do they believe him incapable of winning a presidential race, but they think that he is totally unqualified to be President of the United States. They do, however, find Cain entertaining. As one told me, “Cain’s filling a gap in the long process involved to win the nomination.”
Cain’s campaign manager, Mark Block, claims this is all carefully planned and part of their campaign, apparently including the ad with Block smoking a cigarette on camera. Block makes this claim notwithstanding the fact there are no visible signs of any real organized Cain campaign anywhere, to the dismay of the few who have worked for the campaign but departed because they felt it was doomed. It is not possible to run a stealth presidential campaign, so Block’s smoke-and-mirrors approach will not work. Polite reporting simply calls Cain’s campaign “unconventional.” Former Cain aides described it as chaos. Political professionals privately call it a disaster.
Fox News’s Failed Defense of Cain
The leading promoter and defender of Cain’s campaign is Fox News. Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren gave Cain a friendly forum to respond to the sexual harassment charges. (He only made his situation worse.) Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer invited Cain to play the race card, which he did—notwithstanding the fact that Cain admitted that he had no evidence whatsoever that these charges were racially motivated. In short, Fox News gave Cain the rope to hang himself, and he has left himself hanging on it. This is a self-lynching in progress.
Media Matters, which keeps an eye on Fox News, reported that Fox News’s special commentator Brit Hume offered a spirited editorial defending Cain, but Hume twisted the defense by simply ignoring the law. Hume quoted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines on sexual harassment (and, not surprisingly, did not mention these guidelines had been in place when Clarence Thomas headed the EEOC and ignored them). My fellow columnist at Justia’s Verdict, Joanna Grossman, will explain this body of law in her column appearing Monday, and will describe how it was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and how it was upheld, despite constitutional challenge, by a unanimous Supreme Court decision written in 1986 by the very conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Hume tried to defend Cain by claiming that big corporate organizations must settle such baseless nuisance claims all the time, because “what is intimidating, hostile, or offensive to some may not be to others.” Hume was, as Media Matters points out, claiming that a sexual harassment case is simply highly subjective. But this is not the law. To win such an action, the sexual harassment at issue must not only subjectively create a hostile or abusive working environment but also be “objectively hostile or abusive.” Maybe Bill O’Reilly should step in for Brit when defending Cain at Fox. O’Reilly learned about this body of law the hard way, when he was sued for sexual harassment, and rumor has it, it was a very expensive lesson for Bill.
Sean Hannity is my favorite conservative comic (he takes himself so seriously when spouting his outrageous positions that he literally cracks me up, and I’m convinced that it has got to be an act, because he can’t possibly be so stupid). Hannity is defending Cain by claiming that the attacks are all part of a liberal conspiracy. Really. Politico, with its GOP links, leading a liberal conspiracy? Sean also likes playing the race card. But Black conservatives, like former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, and others who know racism first-hand, have made clear that this is not a race-based story.
With friends like Fox News, Herman Cain’s sexual-harassment problems are far from over. With Cain’s having chosen both a weak defense, and weak defenders, this story is going to become central to Herman Cain’s political prospects, which are diminishing by the day.