Herman Cain on CPAC, Sarah Palin, Birtherism, and Topless Pics

Yesterday, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., I had a chance to catch up with Tea Party favorite Herman Cain, who I profiled in the March issue of The Atlantic. Cain will address the CPAC audience this afternoon. I was interested in hearing his thoughts on his incipient president bid, Sarah Palin's absence from CPAC, and Donald Trump's unexpected inclusion. And also, whether or not he was a birther, and if he'd ever sent topless pics of himself to anyone, like Rep. Christopher Lee (R-N.Y.). Here's a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:

Since we last spoke, you launched your presidential exploratory committee. Where things stand?

The good news is, three weeks and one day ago we launched out exploratory committee. When people go to HermanCain.com they can sign up as volunteers and they can also donate. The donations have met expectations; they volunteers have exceeded expectations. We now have over 26,000 volunteers signed up, from all across the country, who want to be a part of the Herman Cain presidential campaign. Things are going full speed ahead. The last time we talked I think I might have said I was 70 or 80 percent there to making a final decision. Now we're up to 85--it keeps moving!

How important is CPAC and the straw poll to the emerging GOP field?

I think the straw poll sends a message. It sends a message as to who many of the die-hard conservatives take seriously relative to their message. That's what it is--it's like a barometer; it doesn't predict who's going to get the nomination, but it's certainly a measure of whose message is resonating the best with this staunch group of conservatives who have gathered by the thousands.

Some conservative groups are boycotting CPAC over the inclusion of gay groups. Do you support the decision to let those groups participate?

It's their decision, it's their conference. I could have decided to speak here or not speak. I'd already made a committment to speak here, and so I'm not going to get into the cat fight over who they let in and who they don't let in. The organizers, the people who own this conference, that's their decision, okay? So that's not one that I'm going to weight in on, because it's not my call.

Do you think gay Republicans have a place in the Republican Party?

Not based upon my understanding of what their motives and objectives are. If they're looking for tolerance, there's a place in the Republican Party. If they're looking for the Republican Party to approve of their decisions, I don't think that's going to make it into the Republican Party. Because a majority of the people--now you're going to find some that may not agree--but the majority of the people in the Republican Party are social conservatives. And they simply are not going to condone that.

A lot of people probably don't know about your business background--you currently sit on three corporate boards: Whirlpool, AGCO, and Hallmark Cards. You famously debated Bill Clinton about how health care impacted your business when you were CEO of Godfather's Pizza. In your role as a board member now, what did you tell companies like Whirlpool about Obama's health care bill?

The same thing that I told my radio audience: that it's a terrible plan. It is a disaster, another huge bureaucracy that will have unintended consequences. All I could tell the board was to take whatever steps that they could to fight it. But I don't know how well they went about doing that. The fight against Obamacare came from the grassroots, not from corporate America.

But as a corporate director, what effect does that have on a company like, say, Whirlpool? Is this something that comes up in board meetings?

On all three boards that I serve on, leading up to the signage of this legislation, it was discussed. Right after it was passed, all three of them did an analysis of what it was going to do to the corporation. And in all three cases, they calculated multimillion-dollar hits to the company's bottom line, as a result of many of the requirements. They analyzed what it would mean to their existing health care plans, and what it would do to their existing workforce: all negative. All this rhetoric the administration is using to try to sell this based upon making sure people with preexisting conditions are left out, bringing down costs and increasing accessibility, that simply is not true. If it were, why would over 700 companies asked for waivers on this crazy plan? It is poorly conceived, poorly constructed, and a disaster of a piece of legislation. The bottom line: the cost impact was horrendous for all three of the companies.

Speaking of business, Donald Trump was a late addition to CPAC. As a businessman yourself, how do you rate Trump's business savvy and performance?

You would have to look at his success and say that his business success really speaks to his business savvy. You can't question that.

Aren't a bunch of his casinos almost bankrupt?

I don't know. Sometimes I don't know what to believe about what's true and what's not true about Donald Trump and his business enterprise. So I really don't know. But the more business people that get into this primary, I think it will be good for the race, because it will help force the politicians to talk more about solutions. That's what business people do.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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