It hasn’t been a great couple of weeks for the Republicans. Or, more specifically, it hasn’t been a great couple of weeks for the Republicans who aren’t Mitt Romney. Virtually all of the former Massachusetts governor’s leading rivals for the GOP nomination have seen their campaigns run into some sort of major scandal or controversy as of late, generating a string of outrages and upsets that have helped consolidated an already stubborn narrative that only squeaky-clean Mitt is truly ready for prime time.
First, Michelle Bachmann. It seems like the faintest of faint memories, but there was a time, not too many months ago, when this self-proclaimed Tea Party stalwart was topping the polls. Now she’s lingering in the single digits, and can barely keep her own staff in order. On October 21, her entire New Hampshire campaign team quit en masse, in what was seen as a tacit admission that the Congresswoman had resigned herself to a Romney victory in that state.
Strategically wise, perhaps. As a strong religious conservative with limited cash, it’s perfectly logical for Bachmann to concentrate her resources on eking out primary wins in more culturally conservative Iowa and South Carolina — but the optics were still terrible. A few days later, the leader of the Tea Party group American Majority openly called for her head, accusing her of running a vain and hopeless campaign that was hurting the Tea Party brand by association. “I think it’s pretty obvious that Michele Bachmann is about Michele Bachmann,” the group’s executive director told CNN.
Then there’s Rick Perry, the man who, at least initially, seemed to gain support at the expense of Bachmann, particularly after her absurd accusations that the Governor was forcibly inoculating “little girls” with brain-retarding drugs in exchange for fat kickbacks from Big Pharma. And for much of September, Perry was indeed the cause célèbre of the conservative set, prided for his charm and proven not-being-Mitt Romney bona fides. A series of awful debate performances seemed to quickly give a lot of Republicans second thoughts, however, and Perry’s numbers soon slipped back down as quickly as they had risen.
There are some theories that the sheer emotional despair prompted by this rapid decline explains the Governor’s… performance at a New Hampshire fundraiser last week. If you haven’t seen the highlight reel yet, I highly advise it. In it, an incredibly erratic, giggly, loud, goofy, slurring, and wide-eyed Perry babbles with such over-the-top vigor and flamboyance he comes off more like a Saturday Night Live caricature of himself, or one of those fake lib dub videos, than an actual… well, adult, I guess. Whether or not the video, which has predictably gone viral, will have an impact on folks beyond YouTube nerds has yet to be seen, but I can’t imagine Team Perry is enjoying having their “No, he wasn’t drunk” press releases dominating the headlines, in any case.
Lastly, we have Herman Cain, the man whom the polls still claim is Romney’s most serious opponent at the moment — a fact which causes no shortage of discomfort to the American punditocracy, who long ago (and with great self-assuredness) dismissed the man as a joke. As a charismatic, non-politician, southern black guy, in the eyes of many conservative voters, Cain seemed like the most aggressively non-Romney candidate yet, and his October surge was perhaps not entirely unpredictable, given the flaws of his two flavor-of-the month predecessors. Yet Cain’s rise was also a classic example of love of the unknown. Lacking a preexisting national profile or well-known background, Cain was free to define himself as the 9-9-9 tax plan guy without distraction, and in the words of one blogger, offer up a “personal interpretation of his own resume” in substitution for any readily verifiable presidential qualifications. Reality was bound to catch up.
Over the last couple of days, Cain has been actively dodging reality in the form of his recently revealed past as an allegedly chronic sexual harasser. Despite some initial denials and a conveniently spotty memory, the former pizzaman has now admitted that during his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association of America, his organization settled at least two harassment charges out of court for hefty sums, both relating to inappropriate conduct on the part of Cain himself. A third former employee has also recently come forward, and although she never brought formal harassment charges against the man, she claims to have considered it, helping verify the accusations of the other two.
Long-forgotten harassment allegations are, of course, nothing new for high-profile political candidates. If Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger are any indication, they can be easily survived, as well. What’s made the Cain case somewhat different, however, is the thoroughly undisciplined way he has chosen to engage with the scandal, not only with his lame-then-retracted denials, but also by peddling a petty and angry conspiracy theory that a certain Perry campaign operative was responsible for leaking the whole story. Though Cain and Perry have indeed shared some staff in the past, the allegation that a disgruntled former Cainiac-cum-Perryite was airing his ex-boss’ dirty laundry for partisan gain proved to be entirely baseless, and culminated in a sad Cain retreat.
So the Cain bubble seems poised to pop, perhaps to be eclipsed by a Gingrich bubble, or a second round of the Bachmann bubble, or maybe a Paul or Santorum bubble — who knows. The only thing that seems to be stable in this race is Romney’s unquivering base of 25% support. It’s a pathetically small chunk of the electorate to ride to victory, but when winning seems so certain, why bother to aim higher?