The thing that I felt most acutely while watching Herman Cain on Saturday was that this campaign seemed to be a great idea—until the moment it started being taken seriously. It’s still hard to say whether or not Cain was running a serious campaign. (Though there are different levels of seriousness: Pat Robertson probably wasn’t “serious” in the sense of expecting to win, but he was serious in attempting to demonstrate the strength of religious conservatives as a voting bloc, and making sure that the eventual nominee would pay attention to their concerns. Ron Paul is probably serious in the same sense: even though he won’t win, his campaign allows his ideas about monetary and foreign policy to be heard in these debates.) But what we can say is that if we read it as an un-serious, fun campaign, it was a brilliant move at first, making him more famous and popular than he’d ever been before. But then he did so well that he became the “front-runner,” and his campaign had to be taken seriously. And once a campaign is taken seriously, the candidate has to deal with all the stuff that a serious candidate must face, like intense scrutiny of every question he can’t answer, and revelations about his past. Front-runner status also automatically transforms a candidate into a partisan figure, meaning that Donald Trump and Herman Cain are disliked far more on the opposite side of the aisle than they used to be—which is fine for a professional politician, but not so great for a businessman. It does seem like these guys would have been better off, if not necessarily happier, if no one had ever taken them seriously.
The other thing I was wondering about is whether Herman Cain’s candidacy will be remembered. Offhand I would say no, just because most losing candidates aren’t remembered. In the U.S.—and not just there—people who get the nomination and lose are barely remembered; the people who lose the nomination are completely forgotten unless there is some other compelling reason to remember them (they win the nomination later, like Reagan, or they are already extremely famous people, like Hillary Clinton). Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan are well-known and they ran fairly successful campaigns of their kind, but even their campaigns aren’t all that much more than footnotes now.
There are two U.S. no-chance candidates I’m familiar with, because of popular culture of course. The first is Harold Stassen, who is before my time but whom I know from a Mad Magazine piece about inaccurate Hollywood biopics they’d like to see: why not, they asked, have a big Hollywood movie about the great struggle of a man who ran for President every four years and never came close?
And the other one I remember well is Steve Forbes, because of Saturday Night Live. Specifically, after Kids in the Hall, Mark McKinney got added to the cast of Saturday Night Live, and survived in the cast for a couple of years in part on the strength of his Steve Forbes impression. When Forbes dropped out, McKinney’s days on the show were numbered, and this was incorporated into a sketch where McKinney (as Forbes) accused Forbes (as Forbes) of “screwing Mark McKinney” by dropping out too early. And so Steve Forbes lives on in my memory not for his policy prescriptions, but as the man who caused a Canadian to have to go back to Canada.