Herman Cain: Mine. Mine. Mine

Herman Cain has used charisma, and the seductive power of simplicity, to become a front-runner. But what exactly is he running for?

Last week the leaders of the Arizona Republican Party had to scramble when they suddenly realized, along with everyone else in politics, that Herman Cain was the new Republican front-runner. Cain was due to headline an Oct. 17 fundraiser at a Phoenix hotel. Then the world saw him dominate a Presidential debate and discovered his 9-9-9 tax plan. After that, a hotel would no longer do. The event was moved down the street to the Phoenix Convention Center, and still sold out.

Confident and beaming, Cain delivered a thunderous 40-minute oration that had the feel of a tent revival and repeatedly returned to his 9-9-9 plan. Although usually identified as the former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza or the onetime chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, Cain’s ardent professional passion during the last decade and a half has been motivational speaking and book publishing, and his address was brisk with problem-solving knowhow offered up in simple, easy steps.

Cain and his 9-9-9 plan got pilloried by the other candidates at the Republican debate in Las Vegas the next evening, confirming his arrival in the top tier, where laughter is a luxury the competition can no longer afford. As a first-time object of real scrutiny, he looked a little shaken. But it’s testimony to his pitchman’s skills that the overflow crowd in Phoenix recognized each provision of his plan and cheered lustily as they were introduced: a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent corporate income tax, and a 9 percent sales tax, to replace the entire U.S. tax code. Cain wasn’t just selling his plan. He was also plugging his latest book, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, which just debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times Best Seller List. And although he has a Horatio Alger story to match anyone’s—raised poor in the Deep South, rose to the top of the corporate hierarchy—the adoring throngs and the sanctuary of this private event seemed to loosen his inhibitions. “My American dream,” he boomed, “was, when I grow up, I want to make me some money!”

Cain is making money, alright. Bloomberg News reported on Oct. 17 that his campaign paid more than $65,000 to his personal publishing company to buy copies of his books and pamphlets. In an interview before his address to the Arizona GOP, he told me that he continues to give motivational speeches to corporations at $25,000 a pop even as he campaigns for President. “I’m still doing paid speeches,” he confirmed. “But I have not raised my prices. This economy’s on life support, so I’m very mindful of those companies that would like to have me come and speak. But I’m not gonna take advantage of my newfound popularity just to put more dollars in my pocket.” Even so, Cain estimates that he has earned $250,000 this year through his speeches.

Running for President has been good to him, even if no one is certain that the White House is his most coveted destination. Opponents, reporters, and many of his own aides are skeptical. In June, four of his top staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire quit because, as one of them put it, Cain “wasn’t willing to make the commitment to Iowa necessary to win.” Over the past few months, as his popularity has swelled, he has turned his back on the early primary states he once courted diligently and set off on a national book tour to promote This is Herman Cain! He has a bare-bones staff, a thin calendar, and hasn’t registered his name on the ballot in numerous primary states, although he has registered appearances on the Today show and dozens of others to pitch his book.

Cain insists he’s serious about becoming President and dismisses any suggestion otherwise. “People who criticize me for our strategy, they don’t know what our strategy is,” he says. Cain claims that he has passed over early primary states to sell books and speak to audiences in places like Tennessee and Ohio because he is running primary and general election strategies at the same time. “I have an unconventional campaign,” he says.

Any political expert would agree, although most would call it nuts for anyone with serious designs on the White House. People run for President for all sorts of reasons, and many before Cain have availed themselves of the spotlight in order to further their own commercial interests. Newt Gingrich, for one, rivals Cain in his proclivity for hawking his innumerable books and films while ostensibly competing for the Presidency. And candidates from Pat Buchanan to Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin have leveraged long-shot bids for the White House into television and publishing fame. But Cain represents this trend’s newest and furthest iteration: He has never held any elective office and seems only intermittently committed to winning this one, but has nonetheless managed to cash in on the race like the top-tier candidate he has suddenly become.

In Phoenix, Cain told me that his unorthodox operation “is based on a political strategy, not a commercial strategy.” Maybe so, but a look at his career as a motivational speaker—Cain prefers “inspirational speaker,” because only you can motivate yourself—reveals a lot about where his ideas come from and how someone previously unknown in Presidential politics has emerged as such a captivating figure.

In 1995, Cain trademarked the phrase “The Hermanator Experience,” meant to refer to the life-enhancing effects of exposing oneself to his exhortative speeches, seminars, workshops, and videotapes. The Hermanator Experience, or T.H.E., also became the name of his company, which produced and distributed these products and is now called T.H.E. New Voice. “We all knew him as the Hermanator,” says Judy Stoehr, a motivational speaker with Cain in the 1990s who wrote and taught a training manual based on one of his self-published books on leadership. “He was very charismatic. People just flocked to him.”

The trademark application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (and renewed just before the Presidential campaign) includes a bounty of these materials, and they draw the lineage of his current effort. Before 9-9-9, there was Leadership Is Three Plus Three, his book on empowering something he calls “people force.” There was also Leadership Is Common Sense, and his “Leader to Leader” leadership seminars, which promised participants that they would “join with others in actively learning many powerful new strategies that will make a positive difference at work and in your daily life.”

Cain also dabbled in nonnumerical tracts that advocated his views of the political economy. In Save the Frog, he likened the plight of the U.S. businessman—gradually stifled by increasing regulations—to that of the proverbial frog slowly boiled alive in a pot of water. (Mythbuster: A real frog jumps out when the water gets too hot.) The book’s cover features a Godzilla-size amphibian scaling a Wall Street tower.

Cain’s gifts are as apparent in debates and speeches as they were on his $99 videotape seminars from a decade ago: the hammy presentation, the sharp wit, the blustery assertion that every problem is simple and solvable through positive thinking and willpower alone. What’s vaulted him ahead of the other Republican candidates is his appeal to the gruff certainty and shallow understanding of politics that leads Americans of every persuasion to believe that if only someone had the guts and gumption to confront those dithering politicians in Washington, then all the country’s ailments would dissolve.

This thirst for easy solutions has clearly given Cain a terrific boost. They’re what every motivational speaker is peddling beneath the “success strategies” and “leadership principles.” This is also why Mitt Romney’s 59-point, 160-page economic plan has failed to register with anything like the force of 9-9-9. Romney’s mistake was to produce a plan that actually tried to meet the challenge of running the country in a serious way. By now, many Americans have become acculturated to thinking about the world and its challenges as Herman Cain does—some of them by attending the same high-energy motivational seminars where Cain and politicians including Rudy Giuliani, Steve Forbes, and George W. Bush regularly appear.

This same culture is just as obviously the source of Cain’s deficiencies as a possible President. Take his foreign policy. He has declined to state a position on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan because he has not yet been briefed by military leaders. Instead, he says he’ll apply his principles to producing a policy that is “bold and clear” once he is elected. He has invoked John Bolton and Henry Kissinger as masters of foreign policy whom he admires, although the two men view America’s role in the world very differently. What Cain really offers is a Zig Ziglar foreign policy: Optimistic, resolute, and devoid of substance.

He brings this same combination of self-confidence and willful naiveté even to his 9-9-9 plan, which must first pass Congress before it can be signed into law. Congress’s stubborn refusal to pass most of Barack Obama’s agenda has been the abiding frustration of the President’s first term. To Cain’s way of thinking this does not present a political problem, but a personal challenge to be overcome through sheer force of will. “They will pass it,” he insisted, when asked what would happen were Congress to keep up its obstructionism. “Let me tell you real quickly why. No. 1, I’m gonna be at the top of the ticket. Secondly, I’m gonna get the Republicans together and get them on board rather than shoving it down anybody’s throat. Then the American people are going to be demanding it because they understand it. That’s where inspirational speaking comes in, thank you. That’s what’s gonna be different.”

The difficulty for Cain and his growing legion of supporters is that no matter how colorfully he frames his books and speeches with superfrogs and catchy numbers, the power of positive thinking doesn’t get you very far in politics these days. Just ask the many disillusioned supporters of the guy currently occupying the Oval Office. Cain may have discovered his own limits in the Las Vegas debate. He could try to recast himself as a serious candidate—assemble some respectable advisers, develop weighty policies and equip himself better to defend those he has already laid out, quit the ad-libbing and joking around. But that would mean sacrificing what his supporters find so appealing: the Hermanator Experience.

Cain shows no sign of doing any such thing. To the contrary, he has finally achieved the celebrity he seems to have been seeking all along, and it’s hard to imagine him giving this up willingly. He has inspired frustrated conservatives unwilling to reconcile themselves to Mitt Romney, and while this may not bring him the nomination, he stands to reap many handsome rewards. “Outspoken personalities like Cain are tailor-made for the media age,” says Jonathan Klein, president of the digital strategy company @Media, and the former head of CNN. “If he’s able to perform, books, radio, television, Twitter, and Facebook, even commerce—Glenn Beck sells gold—all of that will be wide-open to him. It’s almost a can’t-lose scenario. He’s already sold pizza. So why not everything else?” The thought must have occurred to Cain that there are much worse fates for a failed Presidential candidate than popular multimedia pitchman and conservative icon. In fact, that may have been the idea all along.

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