For Herman Cain, the comparisons to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have shifted from implied to explicit after a joke the candidate made about Thomas accuser Anita Hill.
According to Fox News, Cain was at a campaign event in Michigan on Thursday when someone in the crowd brought up Hill. Cain replied, laughing, “Is she going to endorse me?” (Watch video below.)
The group surrounding Cain—almost all men by the look of the video—guffawed.
It was 20 years ago this year that Thomas was embroiled in a bitter fight on Capitol Hill after Hill emerged late in his confirmation process to accuse of him of sexual harassment. The hearings became a searing cultural moment of the time, with Americans divided over the conflict, and helped imprint the issue of workplace harassment on the public consciousness.
Cain shares many similarities with the justice. Close in age, the two are African Americans notable for their conservatism when a large share of their cohort runs Democratic. Both prospered after enduring hardscrabble upbringings in Georgia.
And no one seems more aware of the symmetry than Cain. Early in his campaign, long before the sexual harassment allegations stemming from his time at the National Restaurant Assn. came to light, Cain predicted that he would be subject to a “high-tech lynching” at the hands of the press, the phrase Thomas used so memorably two decades ago.
“They’re going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate,” Cain told conservative writer Byron York in May. “To use Clarence Thomas as an example, I’m ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through -- for the good of this country."
It’s unknowable whether Cain had the sexual harassment allegations in the back of his mind when he told York that (he has said he briefed a GOP consultant of the threat back in 2003 when he was running for Senate) —or whether the former talk show host was autonomically assuming a combative stance toward his expected liberal detractors. But he clearly saw a kinship.
(Oddly enough, when Thomas’ wife, conservative activist Ginni Thomas, interviewed Cain earlier this month, she didn’t mention her husband in the context of the sexual harassment allegations at all.)
Certainly, Cain now feels persecuted in much the same way Thomas did in 1991, and he and his campaign, as Thomas did, have taken to blaming the media for his troubles. Cain’s supporters have made a note of the comparison as well. Americans for Herman Cain, a political action committee unaffiliated with his campaign, released a video ad that pleads “Don’t Let the Left Do it Again” in reference to the Thomas hearings.
But while some pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have contended that Cain has taken fire specifically because he is a black conservative, Cain has largely avoided citing his race as a motivating factor, instead claiming he is a target because he’s an outsider, an insurgent candidate.
Cain has a tougher row to hoe than Thomas ever had. The jurist only had to survive a Senate confirmation process where a majority vote in a body of 100--and then, almost exclusively older, male and white--would allow him to ascend to the high court. Cain cannot simply rely upon the support of men if he is to first attain the GOP nomination and then the presidency.
Polls show that the candidate is hemorrhaging women voters. A new CBS News/New York Times poll out Friday said that Cain has lost nearly half of his support from women from just weeks ago.
According to the poll, 38% of women surveyed said they are less likely to support Cain because of the allegations against him. Fifty-seven percent said it will make no difference in their vote. By contrast, just 23% of men said they are less likely to vote for Cain because of the harassment allegations.
Cain likely isn’t helping himself with women with off-the-cuff remarks like the Hill joke in Michigan and his reference to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who shattered a ceiling when she became the first female House speaker in history, as “Princess Nancy” at the GOP debate Wednesday. (Cain later said he regretted the choice of words.)
And while Cain argued at Wednesday’s debate that the “thousands” of the women he’s known in his life haven’t accused him of harassment, his campaign has not produced a female surrogate of any kind to take to airwaves to defend Cain against the allegations.
He and he and his campaign also have chosen to aggressively attack Susan Bialek, the first accuser to go public against Cain. A new website launched by the campaign, caintruth.com, is replete with derogatory insinuations about Bialek’s credibility. The tactic may help underpin Cain’s claim that he is being railroaded, but it also runs the risk of alienating women who may feel some empathy for victims of sexual harassment.
Indeed, it was a shared empathy of that sort that helped motivate female voters to action and propel a new wave of female Democratic politicians to Congress in the wake of the Thomas hearings, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who now chairs the deficit reduction “super committee,” and buoyed the campaign of presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
Should Cain prevail in the primary and become the nominee, Republicans will have to hope that he, like Thomas, doesn’t end up driving moderate women to the other party. Should that happen, the parallels between the two men will grow even stronger even as the GOP feels the sting of history repeated.
Here’s the Fox News video from Thursday:
Here’s the pro-Cain “high-tech lynching” ad: