‘Swiftboating’ Herman Cain?

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

As TheDC’s Alex Pappas noted, Herman Cain was a bit testy today with reporters today:

As reporters confronted Cain while walking from his speech to the news conference room, he said, “Let me say one thing, I’m here with these doctors and that’s what I want to talk about, so don’t even bother asking me all of these other questions that you all are curious about, OK? Don’t even bother.”

Reporters then began shouting out questions.

“What did I say?” Cain said. “Excuse me. Excuse me!”

Reporters continued to pepper him with questions as he walked and security saying, “Step back.”

“What part of no don’t some people understand?” Cain said.

Here’s the problem.

As I said on MSNBC earlier, politicians build their campaigns on different foundations. For some, their credibility is derived from experience or expertise or even authenticity. Herman Cain’s support is premised almost entirely on his tremendous likability.

That’s why getting a few facts wrong here or there doesn’t hurt him; people don’t support him because of his fastidiousness — they support him because they like him.

And likability covers a multitude of sins.

Until it doesn’t.

One of the unintended consequences of this scandal is that it has made Cain snippy.

Of course, if his anger is directed solely at the big bad media — that might actually help him. But if the fellow watching Cain on TV starts to see him as less likable — which is a possible outcome of the scandal (or his response to it) — Cain’s greatest strength could be undermined.

That’s why I believe that if Cain’s support collapses it could happen precipitously. The question is whether or not he hits that tipping point.

Regardless, the important point is that the way to destroy Cain politically is to undermine his likeability. That could be a product of the actual allegations — or it could merely be the product of Cain’s reaction to the allegations.

If this story were planted by a Republican foe (it is unclear who leaked it) — they likely did so with the intent of hitting Cain — not where he is weakest — but where he is strongest.

Some observers, of course, keep waiting for Cain’s lack of foreign policy knowledge — or his flip-flops on abortion, etc. — to do him in. But Cain’s support isn’t derived from foreign policy expertise — or even from his being a culture warrior.

But if you live by likeability, you die by likeability.

Consider what Wayne Slater, one of the authors of “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential” told PBS a few years ago:

In 2004, the number one thing that John Kerry offered was his heroic service in Vietnam, and so what Rove did was attack the strength of Kerry, not his weakness. What you had to do was confront Kerry’s strength in Vietnam by raising doubts about whether or not he was a hero and whether or not his service was really all that noble.

(Emphasis mine.)

“Swiftboating” means different things to different people. Liberals, of course, associate it with a sleazy and false attack. My guess is that the 2004 ads were probably true — and they were effective because they a). hit Kerry on his strength, and b). used “real” witnesses to tell the story.

This, of course, brings us to a perfect segue — the possibility of introducing some “real” people into the Cain story. What happens if (or maybe it’s when?) one of his accusers goes public?

The press will immediately seek to vet her — to see if she has a credible background. And the public will size her up, too — and quickly determine whether or not she is a sympathetic figure. Regardless of the merits of the case, if she has a clean background — and comes across in a sympathetic way — Cain will likely be in big, big trouble.

It’s still unclear whether or not this was a hit made by one of Cain’s primary opponents — or if this just came about organically. My gut is that somebody with an agenda is behind this. But either way, the results are the same.

Let the swift boating begin.

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