The GOP's Potential Cain Problem

I generally don't bother criticizing Andrew C. McCarthy, who as I have previously written is, for reasons beyond my ken, treated by movement conservatives as an eminent thought leader rather than an embarassment to be hidden from proper society. But I'll do so today as a hook to talk about what I think is a potential danger for the GOP in this Herman Cain sexual harassment story.

McCarthy has written a post at National Review Online, in which he works up a frothy fury over Politico, and its fine reporter Jonathan Martin, for reporting the story in the first place. The journalistic merits of that piece are a fair topic for serious people, but coming from McCarthy it's just laugh-out-loud funny to see him rage that "Politico’s initial story was woven out of insufficient evidence, anonymous sources, and vague allegations."

For those unfamiliar with McCarthy's oeuvre, he wrote an entire book claiming -- literally, explicitly, in so many words -- that President Barack Obama, with the full knowledge and support of American liberals, has collaborated with extremist foreign advocates of global sharia government to plot the fall of the United States.

So, the dude clearly respects the importance of nailing down hard evidence before going public with any accusations.

(I also enjoyed that McCarthy's post includes a link to that paragon of responsible journalism, Andrew Breitbart's BigJournalism.)

(And I also got a kick out of McCarthy's regret that "Cain could have taken the high road. He could have tried to keep the focus on the obvious media bias." Really? That's the high road?)

But I come not merely to mock McCarthy. Nor am I blogging to analyze Cain's handling of the charges -- as I Tweeted a couple of days ago (you do follow me at @dbernstein, right?), this scandal hurts Cain's chances of becoming President in the same way that my sore neck hurts my chances of becoming starting forward for the Celtics.

What I'm interested in is whether this episode could end up harming the GOP, which I think could happen if working women perceive that the party is indifferent, patronizing, and callous about the issue of sexual harassment.

Let's back up a moment. Ever since the days of Richard Nixon's "silent majority," the GOP has operated with a working premise -- not always entirely without justification -- that working white men in this country are innocent victims of liberal do-goodism on behalf of pretty much everybody who isn't a working white man. This attitude pervades movement conservatism, and has served to increase Republican partisanship among working white men (and white stay-at-home wives) while alienating blacks, Hispanics, and single women, among others.

Working, white, married (or previously married), largely suburban and middle-class women are, in my opinion, the big swing vote in American politics. This is vastly oversimplistic, but they are usually less likely to have strong partisan identification, and more likely to hold a range of issue beliefs cutting across the left-right divide rather than a strong ideological commitment to any slate of positions. When Democrats win this group by a sizable margin, they win; when Republicans do well with this group, they win.

The GOP, which happens to be dominated by figures who look like caricatures of the worst bosses women have ever had to put up with, is constantly in peril of alienating these working women. 

I think that much of the GOP leadership gets this, to some extent. But, as I've written ad nauseum, the party is now largely driven by the conservative marketplace, which has no incentive to help the party succeed, and every incentive to cater to its consumers. A Washington Post/ABC News poll out today shows that most Republicans do not find the charges against Cain to be serious -- and just 20% of strong Tea Party supporters say it's a serious matter.

The Limbaughs and Coulters of the conservative marketplace know their audience, and many immediately raged in defense of the innocent victim of liberal do-goodism, in this case in the form of supposedly oppressive, oft-abused, politically-correct, sexual harassment rules.

For the most part, actual Republican officials have resisted this urge (perhaps more from opposition to Cain than concern about the optics), although Senator Rand Paul did offer his wonderfully patronizing observation that women have become so over-sensitive that he will no longer tell jokes if any dames are in the room. No, he didn't actually use the word "dame," but regardless, I'm sure the ladies appreciate the confirmation that men do in fact retreat to chick-free klatches to regale one another with sexist wit. 

Speaking of patronizing, here's McCarthy on what Martin should have included to make his report appropriate for publication:

A reasonable reader... would need to know about the character of the women involved: Are they normal women who would be irritated but not bent out of shape unless the behavior Martin refuses to describe was truly obnoxious? Are they unusually sensitive women who were apt to take offense at behavior that a more grounded person would have found innocuous? 

Now, I'm not an expert on this sort of thing, but I think McCarthy may have missed the sensitivity training during his days at the Department of Justice; I don't believe that human-resources professionals are trained to respond to sexual harassment complaints by first asking whether the complainant is a "normal woman."

There's no harm to the GOP in a few McCarthys in the conservative echo chamber, spouting their Mad Men-era view of women; the trouble comes if it spreads to the point where it causes working women's eyballs to start rolling. So far, I don't think it's reached that point -- in fact, quite a number of conservative voices, including several at National Review Online, have piped up about the seriousness of the issue and the allegations. 

And, as I noted above, GOP officials have mostly kept quiet -- including the Presidential candidates. That silence has been sufficient so far, although I'm not sure how much longer that will be true. (Watching Michele Bachmann refusing to answer questions about the Cain story this morning on the Today Show, I was a little struck by her not offering at least an aside that sexual harassment is a serious subject.) And if they get pushed, are Romney et al going to side against those numbers from the Post/ABC poll?

Probably the best thing for the party is for the scandal to really blow up, so that everybody can safely denounce Cain without addressing the broader issues. Or, for the whole story to just go away -- although it doesn't seem like that's going to happen very soon.

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