With the Cain circus, US politics hits a new low

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Herman Cain’s run for president was supposed to be a breath of fresh air. Instead, it’s brought together the campaign season’s least inspirational and most idiotic forces.

If the aim of Cain’s candidacy was a cheerful, dynamic insurgency, free of the burdens of a typical campaign, the result has been an all-too-predictable circus, completely captured by politics as usual — and increasingly indistinguishable from it.

As if that weren’t bad news enough, here’s the kicker: We’re all to blame.

In any presidential contest, there’s no escape from the so-called “silly season.” The time of great and noble virtue in democratic politics is long past, if it ever really existed. But the ridiculousness surrounding the Cain campaign is unforgivable — especially given this election’s high stakes, and the profundity of crisis faced by the country and the world.

Tally up the mounting absurdities and try not to be flabbergasted:

  • Long stretches of presidential debates reveal which candidate can criticize the 9-9-9 plan — a topic of intense focus for the same reason you hum Subway’s “Five Dollar Footlong” jingle — by coining the most outlandish attack pun …
  • A political outsider fields basic questions about his approach to fundamental policy matters by invoking the wise counsel of expert bureaucrats …
  • Hot-button issues, including illegal immigration and abortion, become fodder for jokes, which contain a kernel of truth of some size or another, yet are not intended to offend anyone …
  • The candidate with the best claim to being the Republicans’ “anti-Obama” adopts an almost virtual “50-state strategy,” racking up straw poll victories on the strength of his appeal as an ideological projection screen for voters disenchanted with the usual suspects …
  • Musty old “sexual misconduct” claims, settled long ago, not-so-mysteriously resurface, to the delight of a media machine that prides itself on a devotion to “the real issues” …

And the list goes on. This is to say nothing of Cain’s donor-funded book tour, the rancid spectacle of liberal race-baiting, or the pathetic frenzy surrounding Cain’s new ad showing chief of staff Mark Block — gasp — smoking.

With every farce, there’s another person, constituency, or party at fault — for running plays from political playbooks that ought to be hurled in a fire pit. The left disgraces itself in a festival of Uncle-Tomming. The right resorts to the same defensive boosterism for which it mocks its enemies so well. The media salivates over whatever is of the least substance — as, every week, a freshly manufactured fetish object takes pride of place. Cain runs an operation so unready for prime time that Sarah Palin can’t take it seriously, preferring — how low the bar — Newt Gingrich.

Sadly, the Cain Train is now the locomotive of a Republican race for the White House that’s run off the rails. The grand theme is a total lack of seriousness. Not seriousness in the self-serious sense that, say, Jon Huntsman would use it. Seriousness in the sense that everyone, from Cain to his fans and critics to their proxies in the chattering class, seems positively thrilled to fight to the death over the trivialities of political theater — presumably because a loss on that ground means exclusion from the battle over what is actually to be done in America.

Is there a way out? Some intrepid souls are trying. The prominent conservative think tank AEI has just hosted a substantive conference, featuring Cain, centered around what’s good tax policy here in the real world. And Cain himself is working to preserve his personal dignity as a candidate — a precious resource in the midst of such a brutal gong show.

But if Cain wishes to triumph — not just against the likes of Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, but against Barack Obama and the whole logic of demagoguery and despotism fueling his bid for re-election — he must pivot now, and hard, away from the trap that awaits anyone trying to master the political scene without becoming its slave.

His campaign must be about more than marrying the business world to the federal professionals. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, and the outcome — no matter how well-intentioned, and no matter what the precise configurations of players — has been crony capitalism root and branch.

It must be a campaign unafraid to plant flags in the minefields of the social issues that Rick Perry has found so troublesome. With Mitt Romney as your primary opponent, your particular stance matters less than that you have a stance, and that you maintain it, if I may, with manly firmness. Jokes and prevarications are wholly inadequate.

And it must be a campaign, above all, that shakes off and repudiates the postmodern political game constructed by the media-consultancy complex, where gossip-inducing exposure is the highest form of art and self-referentiality is elevated to a Machiavellian science.

Unless and until Herman Cain can lead his own operation out of the circus tent he has allowed to pop up around him, his campaign train will, at best, succeed only in packing up the circus and riding it inside the Beltway — the last place on earth where America needs more clowns.

James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.

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