Herman Cain’s Bill Clinton moment

David Martosko Executive Editor
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Monday’s Gloria Allred-assisted bombshell about Herman Cain is inspiring a wide range of reactions from all corners of the American political landscape. Liberals are occupying the narrow dynamic range between we-told-you-so and general Schadenfreude. But conservatives’ positions seem decidedly mixed. This shouldn’t be so.

Everything should have changed Monday for future Republican primary voters, even for die-hard riders of the Cain Train.

What was previously a smattering of anonymous sexual harassment accusations has now become a very specific allegation of sexual assault. And what had suggested a tenuous analogy to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas now evokes a firm President Clinton déjà vu.

Any supposed link with Justice Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearings was largely unspoken because it was largely idiotic. Based on the two men’s assumed superficial connection on the basis of skin color, the idea circulated in Washington that Thomas and Cain were either perpetrators of the same malevolence or victims of the same political correctness.

A parallel with Bill Clinton now seems far more suitable.

Do we need to review? First came Gennifer Flowers, who claimed during the 1992 presidential campaign season that she had carried on a 12-year affair with Bill Clinton. The then-Arkansas governor did something that Herman Cain has so far avoided: He issued firm denials on “60 Minutes.” (Clinton later admitted in a 1998 deposition that he and Flowers did have sex — albeit just once.)

Then came Paula Jones, who alleged that Clinton sexually harassed her in an Arkansas hotel room in 1991. Jones was an Arkansas state employee, making Governor Clinton her boss. Clinton settled for $850,000. And proving the axiom that the cover-up is always worse than the crime, false statements Clinton made during his depositions in the Jones case precipitated his impeachment.

Last was Juanita Broaddrick, the nursing home employee who alleged in 1998 that Clinton had forcibly raped her two decades earlier while he was the Arkansas attorney general. Her credibility was a huge issue because she had already told Paula Jones’s lawyers that no such assault ever occurred.

With Clinton, there was almost immediately enough smoke to convince conservatives that a fire was raging somewhere in the 41st president’s nether regions. Later tales of cigars and White House interns made Jones and Broaddrick seem more credible, not less. So in the end, half of America may yet believe the other half elected a rapist to be their president.

To say that Herman Cain can’t afford this sort of cloud hanging over him is beside the point. America can’t afford it.

Setting aside the question of Sharon Bialek’s credibility (and this may or may not be a significant set-aside), Mr. Cain simply has to follow through on what he said on Monday night’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” show.

“I’m willing to do a press conference tomorrow to set the record straight,” Cain said, promising “I am going to talk about it at the press conference … I will talk about any and all future firestorms.”

Tomorrow approaches quickly. Cain has to address Bialek’s claims and face questions tougher than Kimmel’s. (“You said ‘When people get on the Cain Train, they don’t get off,'” Kimmel said Monday night. “Do you regret that choice of words?”)

If Cain doesn’t satisfy reporters at Tuesday’s press circus, he’s destined to become this election’s Gary Hart — or worse, its Anthony Weiner.

Weiner circled a political drain worth recalling. Never accused of so much as touching anyone, he merely tweeted a lewd photo to someone other than his wife. Out he went, along with his plan to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York, but not before more glib and arrogant denials than Cain has offered to date.

Like it or not, we no longer live in the political or mass-media world Bill Clinton inhabited in 1992. Then, the World Wide Web was just a network of universities and government agencies. The Drudge Report didn’t debut for another five years.

Were he running for president in 2012, Clinton wouldn’t have lasted a month.

In 2011 we find ourselves in a voyeuristic soup of digital news and iPhone-assisted Everyman journalism. If Herman Cain thinks he can outlast it, outmaneuver it, or out-slogan it, he’s not half as smart as his most die-hard supporters think he is.

The issue is no longer sexual harassment, that most vague of gender offenses which depends entirely upon the perceptions of the offended. Sharon Bialek accused Herman Cain of assault, an unambiguous crime.

The question of whether or not he groped a woman ten years ago without an invitation is not the stuff of garden-variety political mudslinging. If it’s true, it should turn people’s stomachs.

“There’s not an ounce of truth in all of these accusations,” Cain insisted during the Kimmel show. That’s a good start, but he must address this specific allegation. he must either stand up Tuesday and personally call Bialek a liar, or step aside and let more serious people occupy our time and attention.

Some voters will ultimately find Cain more credible than Gloria Allred, of course, and that may be enough to sustain his political ambitions.

But meanwhile, conservatives who cling to Cain as their preferred anti-Romney candidate should take a moment for a gut-check.

Much will be made in the coming 12 months of whether Americans are ready for another four years of Barack Obama’s baggage. But first we have to decide whether we will contemplate another eight years of Bill Clinton’s.

David is The Daily Caller’s executive editor. Follow him on Twitter