The Herman Cain Meltdown

By Molly Ball
The hits keep on coming for the businessman and onetime GOP front-runner, who seems determined to go down in flames

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The Herman Cain implosion is under way.

Once the Republican front-runner, Cain now seems to be self-destructing before our very eyes. Beset on all sides and sinking in the polls, he's not content to go out with a whimper. Instead, his campaign has become a spectacular series of blunders.

The latest: While trying to fend off criticism of his recent foreign policy gaffes on Thursday, Cain mounted a spirited defense of ignorance and even illiteracy.

"Who knows every detail of every country on the planet? Nobody!" Cain told reporters following him on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. And: "We need a leader, not a reader!" 

That line's unfortunate echo of the buffoonish president from The Simpsons Movie seemed telling. All along, Cain has been a sort of cartoon version of a presidential candidate, entertaining, silly, and preposterously exaggerated.

Meanwhile Thursday, Cain abruptly canceled a planned interview with New Hampshire's most important conservative editorial page, the Manchester Union Leader. It appeared to be a belated, and narrowly targeted, attempt to prevent the candidate from facing further questioning and doing further self-damage. But it only served to invite criticism from another quarter, and it certainly didn't prevent Cain from making more inadvisable remarks (see above).

The implosion's beginning can be traced to another newspaper editorial-board interview, with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, on Monday. That's when Cain got tripped up by a simple, open-ended question on Libya -- you know, the site of the last major U.S. military intervention. His helpless fumbling gave Rick Perry's "oops" some serious competition in the brain-freeze sweepstakes.

Then, on Wednesday, Cain made a pilgrimage to Miami's Little Havana, without apparently bothering to do any homework on Cuba: He professed ignorance of the U.S.'s "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, called a query about Obama's Cuba policy a "gotcha question" and inquired with apparent seriousness, "How do you say 'delicious' in Cuban?"

At this point, stories about Cain aren't even mentioning the sexual harassment accusations he spent weeks trying to fend off. That's ancient history. Heck, compared to all these random countries people keep asking him about, Cain might like to be talking about the allegations again -- at least that's something he has some practice answering questions about.

Though the harassment scandal isn't the source of his present difficulties, it seems likely that it's at the root of Cain's unraveling. The revelations about accusations of sexual harassment against Cain from four different women clearly set him off-balance and planted a seed of doubt in voters' minds.

His erstwhile supporters might have wanted to tiptoe discreetly off his sinking ship. But Cain, it seems, would rather chase them off with sirens blaring.

Image credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/11/the-herman-cain-meltdown/248672/