Will the right give Herman Cain the Clarence Thomas treatment now?

Claiming collusion by liberals and the media made Clarence Thomas a right-wing folk hero. Will it work for Cain?

Published October 31, 2011 11:57AM (EDT)

Republican Presidential candidate, Herman Cain campaigns in Talladega, Ala., Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)  (AP)
Republican Presidential candidate, Herman Cain campaigns in Talladega, Ala., Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) (AP)

The story that Politico reported late last night about possible sexual harassment allegations being leveled against Herman Cain in the late 1990s absolutely could kill the GOP insurgent's presidential campaign. But it doesn't necessarily have to -- and, in fact, it could even boost it, at least in the short term.

What Politico has is a report that relies entirely on anonymous sources to claim that Cain was the subject of complaints from two female employees of the National Restaurant Association, the D.C.-based lobbying group that Cain ran from 1996 to 1999, that the women were subsequently given payouts to leave their jobs and that they signed agreements not to publicly discuss their exits. The story also includes a non-denial and some very evasive-sounding quotes from Cain.

What Politico doesn't have (or doesn't provide): Any names, any official confirmation, or any smoking gun documents. This will apparently form the basis of Cain's public relations strategy in the days ahead. In a statement released just after the story broke, his campaign alleged that the "Inside the Beltway media" and its liberal allies are "dredging up thinly sources allegations" in a desperate effort to arrest Cain's polling surge. "Sadly," the statement read, "we’ve seen this movie played out before -- a prominent conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics."

Logically, this is a tough sell. While the source of Politico's story is anyone's guess (for now), it seems highly unlikely it would be the product of the sort of liberal mischief Cain is implying. After all, Democrats would much rather face Cain in next year's general election than Mitt Romney, who is now generally regarded as the GOP's front-runner, so they have no incentive to destroy him at this moment. There is, however, an obvious incentive for certain Republicans to peddle a story like this -- specifically, Republicans aligned with any of Cain's GOP rivals, who would very much like to see his bubble burst right now.

Nonetheless, Cain's response could still be an effective one, at least within his party. It's practically an article of faith on the right that Democrats and the "liberal media" are perpetually engaged in collusion against conservative leaders and the conservative movement in general. So the suggestion that these nefarious forces are now targeting Cain -- a man who has won immense popularity with white conservatives by claiming that he's defied threats and intimidation to escape from the "Democrat plantation" -- with an anonymously sourced hit piece may prove irresistible to conservatives. Ann Coulter has already taken to Fox News to insist that the story is the handiwork of Democrats who are "terrified of strong, conservative black men."

Coulter's response conjures memories of the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment saga that gripped that nation 20 years ago this fall. Granted, the cases are not rally analogous -- at least not yet. Thomas was confronted with far more specific accusations, with Anita Hill testifying in nationally televised hearings that he'd repeatedly made lewd and sexually graphic statements to her while she worked for him. For now, at least, the identities of Cain's supposed accusers are unknown (Politico says it has chosen to withhold them) and the details of what they supposedly alleged are unclear (the story suggests Cain made "physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable" and that he engaged in "conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature).

But Cain's initial response and Coulter's defense of him call to mind the claims of Thomas and his supporters that liberals and their media allies were making an example of him because he was a black conservative -- "a high-tech lynching," Thomas famously called it. Thus did Thomas emerge as something of a conservative folk hero, a status he still enjoys. In fact, Cain has frequently invoked Thomas' name while running for president, telling conservatives that he expects to receive the same treatment from liberals. "I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through -- for the good of this country," he said earlier this year. "I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching."

The question is whether Coulter's sentiments will end up reflecting the consensus of the right's opinion-shaping class. It's conceivable they could, especially if no further details emerge and the story never advances past the anonymous, unconfirmed accusations that now define it. It's also possible, though, that influential conservatives will approach it with restraint -- and maybe even see it as a positive development. After all, the biggest difference between the Thomas and Cain situations is that Thomas was only seeking Senate confirmation. Cain is seeking to lead the Republican ticket in 2012, giving conservative leaders an incentive to think more pragmatically. That is to say, they need to measure any impulse to treat Cain as a victim of the left against the practical question of whether they really want him coming anywhere near their nomination.

Remember, even before this story there were already many reasons for conservatives to conclude that -- as much as they might like him personally -- Cain would be a disastrous general election candidate. Not reflexively defending him and instead demanding that he thoroughly clear the air could be an effective way to bring his poll numbers back to earth and prevent him from stealing the nomination. Some conservatives already seem to be following this course.

It also may not matter whether conservatives help fan the story's flames. Presumably, every major media organization is now scrambling to unearth the smoking gun that Politico failed to produce. If there is one, it will almost certainly be revealed -- and soon. And if that happens, you can bet that even most of Cain's allies on the right will make it very clear that they don't want him to be next year's Republican candidate.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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