In covering the merciful end of Herman Cain’s campaign Saturday, an MSNBC contributor said that Cain had been a major player in the Republican Party but would now be relegated to a historical footnote. The truth is that Herman Cain was never a serious candidate nor a serious politician or representative of the Republican Party. He was a fringe, gaffe-prone candidate (albeit a charismatic one) from day one.
Throughout this campaign, the media has played up fringe, erratic candidates like Cain, calling them “frontrunners” and “faces of the Republican Party.” MSNBC’s comments about Cain were just another example of the attempt by some in the media to define and skew the American people’s perception of the Republican Party.
From Cain’s ridiculous comments about Muslim Americans, to his lack of foreign policy knowledge and his superficial policy proposals, Cain was a fringe candidate to most Americans — and most Republicans. Cain alienated voters of every party, and never stood a serious chance of actually beating President Obama — nor, I would argue, winning the Republican nomination.
For a brief time, he was leading in some polls, but polls are often misleading. When Rick Perry first entered the race, the media hailed him as a frontrunner because he was polling well. But Perry had some distinct advantages that skewed those early polls in his favor: he entered the race very late, had not been fully vetted and wasn’t well known to most voters. Now that Perry is a known commodity, and a late-night punch line, all those supposed “experts” who claimed he was a major contender have disappeared.
This isn’t the first time early polls have been wildly inaccurate. In September 2007, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson topped the polls for the GOP nomination. In hindsight, I don’t think either man was arguably an “apparent frontrunner” for the 2008 nomination. Similarly, most speculation about Cain as an apparent frontrunner earlier this year wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
The media’s feast over Cain, and its desire to brand him a frontrunner, was nothing new. Some publications did the exact same thing with Michele Bachmann earlier this year, using the opportunity to highlight some of her less-than-flattering positions in an effort to embarrass the Republican Party. And there was a third candidate who was once labeled a frontrunner, right? Oh, I remember now: Rick Perry.
Furthermore, many in the media giddily fueled speculation for months that Sarah Palin would run for president, and many still define her as the face of the Republican Party. Whatever one thinks of Sarah Palin, it’s clear she was not going to be a serious contender for president, and she herself claims that she doesn’t represent the Republican Party.
Herman Cain was never a leading Republican. He never held elected office, never was a voice on policy issues and until this year was a businessman who had never been associated in any meaningful way with the GOP. So why do so many media outlets focus on candidates like Cain and try to brand them as the faces of the Republican Party?
The answer is two-fold. First, the 24-hour news cycle has created an insatiable demand for political coverage. Networks and websites need to fill time and space. And since the media and the American people prefer to focus on the presidential horse race rather than the actual problems confronting America, this is a good way to generate content.
Second, some publications and TV networks are trying to define the GOP as an extremist, out-of-touch party by focusing on a few candidates and some of their most extreme positions. This is a major reason why the media continues to assert that many of Cain’s idiotic statements are popular with Republicans. And it’s why the media was claiming earlier this year that Rick Perry’s comments about ending Social Security represented the entire Republican Party (even though no Republican voters had been given a chance to endorse or repudiate Perry’s comments — and even though Perry later walked back his statement).
Furthermore, it’s fundamentally unfair for the media to portray candidates like Cain as genuine contenders for the GOP nomination. That would be like claiming Dennis Kucinich was on par with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Of course, not many media outlets covered the Democratic race that way.
If a candidate becomes the GOP nominee on a platform of eliminating Social Security or stupidly claiming that most Muslims are extremists, then the media can legitimately make its claims about the Republican Party. But until then, Americans shouldn’t be fooled by the attempt by some in the media to skew and distort the image of Republicans.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.