The implosion of Herman Cain was always going to happen. The default candidate, Mitt Romney, has failed to inspire Republicans and the Tea Party loathe him. So Cain was the third in a series of Anyone But Mitt (ABM) candidates, each of whom had the political longevity of the fruit fly. Newton (“Newt”) Gingrich might well be the fourth.
Like the Emperor Napoleon III, whose name was both his making and his undoing, Herman Cain was both made and undone by the fact that he was never a politician. People loved his “personal narrative”, the simple life story of a man who refused to run for election until he had had a very successful career in the competitive business of selling pizzas. “Everyone in Washington has held public office before,” goes one Herman Cain bumper sticker, adding in an allusion to Sarah Palin’s anti-Obama jibe: “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” Yet Cain’s innocence of office also meant that when one woman after another made claims of sexual harassment against him, he had no plan for how to deal with the allegations. A politician would have been primed and ready for counterattack, or at least would have got his story straight and then stuck to it.
Yet even if it turns out that he has not been a serial groper, Herman Cain was never going to win the Republican nomination. He was always only ever a bumper-sticker candidate, although some of these slogans were “kinda neat”, as Americans say. “You voted for Obama to prove you’re not racist, now vote for Cain to prove you’re not stupid”, reads one, “Cain vs Unable” another, “Yes We Cain”, and, in a reference to his time as CEO of Godfather’s Pizzas: “He Will Deliver”. One of the reasons that the Tea Party, which is constantly accused of racism, though without any evidence, loved Herman Cain can be summed up in yet another bumper-sticker, which read: “My Guy is Blacker than Your Guy: Who’s the Racist Now?”
For all this, Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan (a flat tax of 9 per cent on incomes, sales and corporations) was never going to be popular with most Americans. The great majority of states have a sales tax of less than 9 per cent and some have none at all. When combined with state and local levies, Cain’s federal sales tax would mean rates as high as 17 per cent or more — not far off VAT levels in overtaxed Europe, and unacceptably high in fiscally conservative America. Although the Heritage Foundation estimated that Cain’s package would not increase the federal deficit, it would be deeply unpopular with voters. “Creating a new national sales tax on top of the income tax”, opined the Wall Street Journal when it was unveiled, “is a political killer.” Add to that not only Cain’s ignorance of foreign policy — he had no idea what US policy on Libya had been, he had never even heard of the Palestinians’ so-called “right of return” nor of China’s nuclear arsenal-but also his dismissal of the very notion that a presidential candidate should have expertise in that area, and the Cain campaign was lucky to get as far as it did.
When one also considers the frankly weird TV ad of his chief of staff blowing smoke rings, and his inflammatory statements about homosexuality, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Cain, having started off his campaign as a book tour for his autobiography, unexpectedly found himself as front runner and the preferred post-Perry ABM candidate, then had no clue how to capitalise on his success. And that was all before his accusers had alleged sexual harrassment. Even if Cain is completely innocent of all the charges, the memories of the humiliations brought upon the office of the presidency by Bill Clinton’s sexual shenanigans would mean that few Americans would want to take a chance on him.
So who else is left standing? Jon Huntsman, who on paper is undoubtedly the best-qualified of all the candidates, poses no threat to Romney because he has cleaved determinedly to the moderate ground, which is more fully occupied by his fellow Mormon. Sometimes it seems that the former Beijing ambassador is anyhow running for the post of Secretary of State rather than President. Huntsman’s strategy is risky: it is perfectly possible to win the GOP nomination without the support of the Christian Right — Bob Dole and John McCain both did — but not easy. In private conversation Huntsman is tremendously impressive and likeable, but he resolutely refuses to play to his considerable strengths — he speaks fluent Mandarin, for example — in case he seems too cosmopolitan to the voters in Hicksville, Iowa. (They didn’t like John Kerry for being fluent in French, so perhaps he’s got a point.)
It’s also worth watching out for the danger of the libertarian Ron Paul standing as a third party candidate. In a three-way poll with Obama and Romney, Paul consistently gets around 18 per cent of the vote, precisely the Ross Perot figure of 1992 and deriving from much the same kind of voters across the political divide. Perot ensured Clinton’s victory over the incumbent, George H.W. Bush; if Paul ran as an independent he would hand next year’s election to Obama.
Rick Perry’s hopes completely dissolved on the night of November 9 when he announced at a candidates’ TV debate that he would abolish three federal agencies, but after mentioning Education and Commerce he could not remember the third. He was given up to a minute to recall its name, but could only say: “Oops”, a word that perfectly sums up his entire campaign so far.
Thus by process of elimination, it seems that the new ABM candidate will now be Newt Gingrich, who has risen steadily into third place behind Romney and the rapidly deflating Cain. With his rivals Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Ron Paul all polling around 10 per cent or less, the field is now open for Newt. It should really have been the former Speaker of the House in the first place. Like Huntsman, Newt Gingrich is a charming, intelligent and able man who makes a fine dinner companion, not least because of his Anglophilia and love of history. He has won all the Republican candidates’ TV debates, greatly outperforming everyone else on the podium with his thoughtfulness, wit and rhetoric. He would pose a severe intellectual challenge to Obama in the presidential election debates, of which he has said he would like to have no fewer than seven, in the open-ended, unmoderated style of the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. “I think I can represent American exceptionalism, free enterprise, the rights of private property and the constitution”, Gingrich has said, “better than he can represent class warfare, bureaucratic socialism, weakness in foreign policy, and total confusion in the economy.” With Obama shorn of his ubiquitous teleprompter in those debates, Newt might be right.
Yet Gingrich faces formidable hurdles in getting the GOP nomination, not least from the fact that his entire senior campaign team resigned en masse on June 9, citing his refusal to listen to them. (He went on holiday with his wife instead.) Until recently he only had campaign offices in Georgia and Florida, and has only recently opened up in vital Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Reports state that he has only just raised $2m in the last two months and has a mere $4m in the kitty, the kind of money Romney pulls in every week.
The conservative Right doesn’t wholly trust him. Gingrich’s 23rd book, the environmentalist tract A Contract with the Earth, and his appearance on a public service broadcast about green energy alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — the Tea Party’s ultimate bugbear — might prove more problematic than the original Contract with America that shot him to fame in 1994. Many conservatives are not ready to forgive Gingrich for endorsing the moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava over the Conservative Party’s Doug Hoffman in the special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district, and back in 1997 he became the only Speaker of the House to be reprimanded for ethics violations, although 83 of the 84 charges against him were dropped. To ordinary Americans, Gingrich’s name recalls the unhappy days during the Clinton administration when he shut down the US government over budget rows. With shutdowns looming in Washington today, it all sounds very retro.
Yet it is Gingrich’s personal baggage that will decide whether he gets his chance to replace Cain as the ABM candidate, and if so whether he will last longer than the three previous fruit flies. It is true that Ronald Reagan was divorced, but only once, whereas Gingrich has been divorced twice, both times after infidelities that won’t go down well with the Christians in Iowa. Newt’s first wife, Jackie Battley, claimed in September 1980 that he visited her in hospital, where she was having a benign tumour removed, to discuss the terms of their divorce, though this has been denied by Newt and at least one of their children. I have myself heard three contradictory accounts of this episode, and there are probably several more.
This year Newt came up with this excuse for the infidelity that led to his second divorce, from Marianne Ginther, and marriage to his former staffer, Callista Bisek, who is 23 years his junior: “There’s no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.” So now we have adultery as patriotic duty. Only in America..