When I was putting the Weekly Sift together last Monday morning, I had a decision to make. Politico had raised the Herman Cain sexual harassment charge the night before. Should I call your attention to it or not? I decided not to.
For most of the week, it was the top news story. And yet, when I did my headline-scan this morning, it was nowhere to be seen. The most recent opinion polls show Cain still at or near the top of the Republican field, as if nothing had happened. (Though one poll shows his favorability ratings among Republicans dropping from 66% to 57% — still higher than, say, Rick Perry, who had no scandals this week.) Cain’s Intrade shares bottomed out below 5o cents (indicating a 5% chance of him getting the nomination) on Saturday, and were rising sharply towards 65 cents this morning. Then another accuser announced a press conference and they dropped to 35 cents.
So the conventional wisdom doesn’t know what to think. If we’ve heard everything, Cain will weather the storm. If we haven’t, who knows?
Here’s the yardstick I’m using to decide what’s a big deal and what isn’t: Politically, a scandal is only important if it changes people’s minds. Which means: As satisfying as it might be for me to speculate about what Cain did or did not do and whether that does or does not dynamite all the moralistic foundations of his candidacy, my opinion makes no difference in this matter, because I was never going to vote for Herman Cain anyway.
Politically, this only matters if it changes the minds of Cain’s supporters and potential supporters. And so far, I don’t think it has.
Not that Cain’s audience doesn’t care about sexual misconduct. Quite the opposite, they’ll turn on him quickly if they start believing that he pressures women for extra-marital sex, especially if some of the women turn out to be white. (They’ll tell you that supporting Cain proves they’re not racist. But I don’t believe they’re that not-racist.)
But what would it take to convince them? They aren’t going to believe “the liberal media”. And even if one or more women come forward, Republican primary voters will say that they just wanted money, which they’re being paid (probably by all-around boogeyman George Soros) to come out of the woodwork.
As Dahlia Lithwick points out, Cain’s defenders have already gone far beyond just saying “we don’t know what happened” or “innocent until proven guilty” and are instead attacking the whole notion of sexual harassment. They know Cain is innocent because sexual harassment is a “scam” (Fred Thompson) and “a lawyer’s ramp, like racial discrimination” (John Derbyshire). The mere possibility of lawsuits “drains the humor and humanity from the workplace” (Kurt Schlichter), presumably because it’s so darn hard to make a female subordinate laugh without hinting that you want to have sex with her. Rand Paul agrees, saying he will no longer “tell a joke to a woman in the workplace, any kind of joke, because it could be interpreted incorrectly”. Lithwick concludes:
Nobody is suggesting these claims [against Cain] are necessarily true. But to claim that they must be false because all women lie and all harassers are just joking is a terrifying proposition.
Here’s the sad truth: If you care about sexual harassment and are willing to take a woman’s testimony against a powerful man seriously, you’re probably already a Democrat. So your opinion on the Cain scandal doesn’t count.
[I anticipate a sneering comment from some conservative about Bill Clinton and Paula Jones. You need context to understand Democrats’ dismissal of Jones: Jones’ story was marketed by the same people who claimed the Clintons had murdered Vince Foster. She was the Nth attempt to drum up a scandal against Clinton, after the first N-1 had been bogus.]
So there are only a few ways Cain’s harassment scandal becomes important: if there’s an embarrassing photo, if so many women come forward that the Wilt Chamberlain racial stereotype starts to apply, if people other than the victims (especially powerful men) come forward with supporting testimony, or if the pressure throws Cain so far off his truthy style that he looks guilty to his supporters.
So far all the furor is coming from people who never liked Cain anyway. Unless that changes, the scandal just has entertainment value. Politically, it doesn’t matter.