Now that Herman Cain is enmeshed in a potential sexual harassment scandal (have you seen the story?), I feel compelled to update my Friday post. As you may recall, I listed the various spin defenses that cornered politicians have lately employed – such as The “I Didn’t Do It” Defense, The “Everybody Does It” Defense, and The “I’m So Tired” Defense – but now we need to make room for the Cain team’s latest.
Call it The Non-Denial Denial Defense.Cornered politicians use this defense to cast general aspersions on an unfavorable story, without actually saying (or proving) that the story itself is factually inaccurate. The Non-Denial Denial seeks to depict the politician as the persecuted victim of malevolent forces. Hence, the Cain team’s insistence last night that the Politico story – which says that two female staffers were harassed by Cain during his lobbying days, and that they were awarded settlements in exchange for keeping quiet – is nothing more than “a smear campaign meant to discredit a true patriot.” Moreover, “Since Washington establishment critics haven’t had much luck in attacking Mr. Cain’s ideas to fix a bad economy and create jobs, they are trying to attack him in any way they can. Sadly, we’ve seen this movie played out before – a prominent conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics.”(Cain’s critics “haven’t had much luck in attacking Mr. Cain’s ideas”? That one is a howler. The so-called 9-9-9 tax plan has already been eviscerated as a sop to the rich and a soaking of the middle class. And any candidate who accuses Planned Parenthood of plotting the genocide of black babies, as Cain did yesterday, has no business whining about being “smeared.” But I digress.)The Non-Denial Denial is typically little more than a smokescreen. It’s usually only a matter of time before the smoke dissipates, at which point the politician is compelled to try a whole new defense…And sure enough, this morning Cain’s team has moved to a Broad Denial Defense. Campaign manager Mark Block tells MSNBC that while he is “not personally aware of any cash settlement,” he nonetheless insists that “Herman Cain has never sexually harassed anybody. Period, end of story.” Cain himself told the National Press Club today: “I have never sexually harassed anyone.”But the Broad Denial Defense is not quite as substantive as The Specific Denial Defense, in which the politician actually rebuts, point by point, the specific scandal allegations. The Cain team has not done that. Politico, over a span of 10 days, reportedly invited the Cain team to contest the specifics. It declined to do so. Indeed, when Cain was asked on the street yesterday, by a Politico reporter, whether he had ever been accused of sexual harassment, he dodged an answer by asking whether the reporter had ever been so accused. Today, at the National Press Club, Cain gave a different answer, acknowledging that, yes, he had been accused during his lobbyist days – but that the accusations “had no basis.”
So the big issue now is whether the scandal story will have legs. This is the kind of thing that can sink a candidate, particularly a novice who is still not well known outside fervent conservative circles. According to the report, which is based on multiple sources and key documents, the two women – who worked with corporate lobbyist Cain during the ’90s, at the National Restaurant Association – accused him of sexually inappropriate behavior, and got five-figure payoffs to go away quietly. Politico withheld their identities for privacy reasons, although, if this story goes anywhere, it’s hard to believe that their names will not publicly surface. (NBC News has now confirmed one of the settlements. Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association is refusing all comment, leaving Cain to twist in the wind.)Granted, we can always debate the relevance of Cain’s ’90s behavior. Anyone with a cognitive memory will recall that Bill Clinton was repeatedly dogged by reports of roguish behavior during his gubernatorial stint (reports that generally turned out to be true), yet he survived them anyway. And we all know that he later stayed roguish in the White House, canoodling with his intern even while conversing on the phone with a congressman about U.S. troops in Bosnia (he was a true multi-tasker).But Clinton was uniquely gifted professional politician. Cain is still a rank amateur who can’t even get through a week without semi-articulating four or five different positions on abortion. His grassroots fans will undoubtedly circle the wagons for awhile, and predictably insist that their man is being persecuted by a “liberal media” that supposedly “fears” him, but that begs the real question: Is Cain he really up to the challenge of handling a scandal story – particularly one that could metastasize if any women come forward and put a face on the allegations?If he ultimately claims that he was out walking the Appalachian Trail during the ’90s, we’ll know for sure that his bubble has burst.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1