Reince Priebus, the 39-year-old chairman of the Republican Party, got that deer-in-the-headlights look a week ago when I asked him a simple question.
“Is Cain another Eisenhower?” The context was that over the past century almost no one, save for Herbert Hoover, a disaster, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, had won the presidency before serving in another political office.
Priebus, who has become good at handling press queries and stays studiously neutral in his party’s presidential contest, seemed to think it ludicrous to compare the pizza-chain executive and motivational speaker to Ike, the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. He was right.
Herman Cain, whose shooting star — he has been running first in many Republican preference polls — may be tumbling after multiple reports of sexual harassment, is the latest avatar of a recurring phenomenon in American politics: The usually short-term appeal of the nonpolitician, the outsider who vows to be different and not play the game by the rules.
The trouble is that politics is a business, not a game; as in most businesses, experience is a requisite.
No one would select a brain surgeon with no experience in neurosurgery, or a chief executive officer with no business background; baseball’s world champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, wouldn’t take someone from outside the sport to replace their retiring manager, Tony La Russa.
Yet when it comes to filling the most important post on the planet, America periodically flirts with the notion of on-the-job training. Cain is the latest example.
Others have had similar moments in the spotlight over the past three decades: The former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca; the Ike wannabes, generals Wesley Clark and David Petraeus; Reform Party presidential candidate and billionaire Ross Perot, and this year, the real estate mogul and television personality Donald Trump.
In the end, the American electorate always comes to its senses and realizes the futility of these fantasies.
The bubble usually pops once voters try to imagine how this political novice would govern, or serve as commander in chief. There are several indicators or requisites for a successful president: a sense of self, core principles without rigidity, political instincts, an ability to persuade, and rudimentary knowledge of policies and people.
In 1992, Perot made a major mark by highlighting an out-of-control federal deficit. Although he finished a distant third in the election, his imprimatur on politics lasted for the next decade, making it easier to bring about the balanced budgets under President Clinton.
Perot, from the perspective of temperament and experience, wasn’t fit for the Oval Office. Beyond deficit reduction, his message was vague, except for some protectionist rants and his penchant to see conspiracies. His difficulty in getting along with political types would have made for turbulent governing.
Then there was this year’s early presidential poster boy, Trump. There were two basic elements to his moment. He was going to bash China back to the Stone Age, a prescription that might have destroyed the global economy. The other was a fetish about whether Barack Obama was an American citizen. Such echoes of the “birther” movement appeal primarily to those who typically only come out when there’s a full moon.
Cain, before the sexual-harassment imbroglio, had become the Republican front-runner based on the simplicity of his message — the “9-9-9” tax-cut plan — his winning personality and his boast that he isn’t a politician.
Overlooked among the Republican base were some different observations. In a Public Broadcasting System interview, Cain warned that China was trying to develop a nuclear capacity; actually, it got the bomb 37 years ago. Earlier, on the Middle East, he said had no idea about the “Palestinian right of return,” a central issue in the Middle East conflict. He called for electrocuting immigrants who try to illegally cross the border into the United States; he later said he was kidding.
Cain ran an ad in which his campaign manager, who was once barred from political activities in Wisconsin for ethical transgressions, can be seen ostentatiously smoking a cigarette. This disconnect between Cain’s well-advertised triumph over cancer and promoting the leading cause of that affliction seems not to have occurred to him.
These aren’t matters of ideology or principles; they go to knowledge and judgment.
Democrats often complain that President Bush, who served fewer than two terms as chief executive of Texas in a weak governor’s system, lacked sufficient experience for the presidency. Similarly, Republicans still charge that Obama’s time in the Illinois state legislature and fewer than four yours as a U.S. senator were insufficient preparation.
The answer to such concerns, if they’re genuine, isn’t to elect someone with less political experience.
There may be another “nonpolitician” Eisenhower on the horizon. He or she hasn’t surfaced over the past 60 years.