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Cain V. Obama: Pondering the GOP’s Penchant for Adversarial Tokenism

Imagine 2050 Staff • Oct 26, 2011

If you’re among those who think that Herman Cain is coming down to his last minutes of fleeting fame in the Republican Presidential race, and that the chances of his becoming The Candidate are slim to none, permit us to recall that stranger things have happened in campaigns circling Barack Obama.

In 2004 the imploding Illinois Republican Party – desperate for a candidate to take on Obama in the US Senate campaign – carpet-bagged the ultra-conservative Alan Keyes from Maryland to put up a stand against the rising Democratic star.  In a cynical nod to the dicey racial politics of the Obama candidacy, the state Party recruited its first-ever African American Senate candidate, established him as a resident, and cast him afield.

The move was, in the words of the staid Economist magazine, sheer tokenism.  But if the Party was looking for coveted media coverage, Keyes did not disappoint. His rightward, offbeat rants on the issues drew media like bees to honey, but the coverage wasn’t always flattering.  By late October the Party itself “neglected” to include him in a statewide campaign mailer heralding its “Republican Team.”  Obama took seventy percent of the vote on Election Day.

Now comes Herman Cain, rattling the (white) Republican establishment, garnering the accolades of the (white) tea party, dazzling the (white) Christian right, and rising to the top of the polls. While the real money is still (shakily) on Romney, Cain is making waves with his disarming style, his off-the-cuff CEO-as-everyman persona, his fringed policy ideas, and his own brand of ultraconservative politics. Just last week – on the heels of his draconian call for electrifying the border fence – he made his pilgrimage to Arizona for an appearance with Joe Arpaio, the infamous Sheriff whose racist anti-immigrant stance earned him condemnation by sixty Black leaders in a newspaper ad in 2010.

The photo of Cain standing by the incarnation of the infamous Sherriff Bull Connor – the Southern tyrant who unleashed dogs on civil rights marchers in 1960’s Birmingham – is breathtaking.  This is the same Herman Cain who said that Obama “has never been a part of the Black experience in America.”

The Republican contest is still wide open.  While few believe Cain could be the Party’s nominee, and while the big boys in the Party establishment have yet to lower their boom, the Republican ground troops are restless.  Raising tea party cane.  Raising Herman Cain.  The notion that the tea partiers could hijack both the Party and its establishment in 2010, drive incumbents out of office by the drove, and intensify the country’s political crisis was foolishness in the summer of that year.  Remember, back in 2004 the notion that the Illinois Republican Party would prop up Alan Keyes against Barack Obama seemed pure foolishness.

The notion that Herman Cain could be the Party’s nominee in 2012 may be foolishness right now.  But stranger things have happened.

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