To truly understand what Herman Cain is really all about, you need only watch the promotional video that stars his campaign manager. It says way more about Cain than it probably intends.
As you may know already, the campaign ad is basically a one-minute monologue by Mark Block. He intones the usual tea-party rhetoric (“We can take this country back”), but, more importantly, he tops it off, at roughly the 40-second mark, by taking a drag on a cigarette and blowing his smoke at the viewer. The gesture certainly got my attention. Smoking is so verboten in contemporary American culture – particularly in movies and TV, with the obvious exception of Mad Men – that its inclusion in the Cain ad seems downright rebellious.And so it is. Block said this week that he’s a proud smoker. But although Cain insisted last night, on Sean Hannity’s Fox show, that “we weren’t trying to send any subliminal message whatsoever,” there are subliminals aplenty. Whether consciously intended or not, the smoking moment is a dog whistle to those voters who love Freedom and hate Government. It’s a siren song to conservatives and libertarians who claim to feel oppressed by all the intrusive rules imposed by the nanny state. Smokers, in particular, nurse these grievances. The “smokers rights” websites are always in high dudgeon about Big Brother, which seems bent on preventing cigarette habitues from expelling their second-hand smoke (classified by the World Health Organization as a “known human carcinogen”) into the lungs of innocent bystanders. In the words of one pro-smoker group, “These smoking bans take away our freedom…Our Rights are endowed from our Creator, only to be taken away by our government. Every time the government gets involved in our lives, it takes away our freedom. There is a point where too many freedoms get taken away and government becomes totalitarian.”Mark Block’s cigarette is a visual metaphor. It’s akin to saying, “We oughta be free to do what we want without government telling us what we can’t do.” There’s certainly a market for those voters; many of them are already keeping Cain atop the Republican heap (the latest national polls, from CBS/New York Times and Fox News, confirm Cain’s lead). These voters reflexively dismiss all the government “experts” who cite 60 suspected carcinogens in second-hand smoke, and who insist that second-hand smoke is responsible for killing non-smokers (roughly 46,000 annual heart-disease deaths, and 3400 annual lung-disease deaths). These voters love Freedom more than health statistics.But let’s drill a little deeper. It just so happens that Cain is a long-time defender of the “right” to smoke in public places. Long before he retooled himself as an outsider, he was working the halls of government as a lobbyist – serving the financial interests of the tobacco industry. Backed by roughly $100,000 in cash from R. J. Reynolds, Cain lobbied against restaurant smoking bans. As a 1999 RJR memo reportedly exulted, Cain and his people “have done virtually everything we’ve ever asked,” in exchange for that cash “and much more in-kind support.”But let’s drill even deeper. Mark Block and Herman Cain are actually front men for the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, who have been pouring money into politics to advance the libertarian cause and free the private sector to do what it pleases.One key Koch front group is Americans for Prosperity. Block, who is widely credited (if that’s the right word) with persuading Cain to run for president, is a former director of AFP’s Wisconsin chapter. AFP has long been in cahoots with the tobacco industry. It has worked nationwide to defeat clean indoor air laws and smoke-free workplace laws. It has typically framed the anti-smoking bills as “a reckless expansion of government,” and has typically defended smoking as a “property right.”As for Cain, he has long been a blue-chip Koch investment. For years, prior to his presidential bid, he traveled the country giving speeches and conducting forums on behalf of an AFP initiative known as the Prosperity Expansion Project. This past June, in New York, he was a headliner at an anti-climate change rally sponsored by AFP. Cain has naturally been paid by his Koch benefactors, but, as the estimable Jane Mayer of The New Yorker recently discovered, the precise financial details have been omitted from all the required disclosure forms.Yet Cain is still posing as an “outsider.” Worse yet, a plurality of credulous Republican voters actually believe it. The pro-smoking Freedom theme is merely the con that masks the real agenda: a bid by billionaires to get even richer – as indeed they would, at the expense of the average Joe, if servile candidate Cain’s 9-9-9 plan ever got enacted. How sad it is that so many voters don’t even blink when smoke is blown in their faces.——-Speaking of Cain, my newspaper column today suggests that it’s one thing to lionize the populist outsider in cinema (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dave), but another thing to vote for a guy who doesn’t know anything. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1