5 Lessons You Can Learn From Herman Cain’s Imploding Campaign

Cain's meteoric rise and hard fall offers lessons for those seeking office--whether it's national or local

Clearly define your strategy. Cain’s campaign was baffling from the beginning.  Dismissed by the mainstream media, he didn’t develop a significant political apparatus in either Iowa or New Hampshire, key states for any presidential candidate to gain traction for the nomination. Instead, he chose to operate in a seat-of-the pants fashion, preferring bus tours in Tennessee which fueled speculation he was more concerned about selling his new autobiography than a presidential run. Even though such campaign unorthodoxy may favor the bold, it doesn’t provide staying power.

One-note campaigns tend to fizzle. Yes, it’s important to stay on message but Cain needed to go beyond his “9-9-9” plan in which he pushed replacing the current tax code with a simple 9% tax on corporate and personal income, and a 9% national sales tax. Under scrutiny, he was often fuzzy when questioned about how it would produce 6 million jobs and 5% economic growth or whether it would force poor or middle-income households to pay more taxes due to the sales tax provision. It was a catchy, simple bite that connected with his base as our nation grapples with with tough, complex economic times. However, Cain—and to be fair, his other GOP rivals—have not offered a clear vision for America’s future.

Off-the-cuff remarks often backfire. Cain often made statements to appear as a maverick but served to alienate. After winning the Florida Straw Poll in late September, he made a sweeping statement in a CNN interview that a significant portion of Blacks “have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view,” raising the ire of many in the African American community. And at another campaign stop in Arizona, he offered the controversial policy proposal of building an electrified fence along the U.S./Mexico border he said could kill people trying to enter the country illegally. In response to criticism, he initially responded that his comments were “a joke” and “America needs to get a sense of humor.” According to a CBSNews.com report, he later reversed course, citing the need for a border fence “and it might be electrified.” His remarks were ripped by the head of the 21-member Hispanic Caucus and other Latino citizens. It’s true candidates must play to their base but the most effective ones see the value of communicating their vision and ideas across constituencies instead of using cheap applause lines that they don’t stand behind under pressure.

Know your facts—and don’t risk becoming a caricature. As his campaign pressed on, his novelty wore off. Cain showed his lack of command of issues beyond his beloved 9-9-9 plan—especially in the foreign affairs arena. In a session with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board, a flustered Cain struggled with a simple question: “So, you agree with President Obama on Libya, or not?”After fidgeting and seconds of silence, he asked for clarification of the question and then said he didn’t “agree with the way he handled it.” He immediately reversed himself, conceding he “got all this stuff twirling around in my head.” In fact, his poor performance made Gov. Perry’s brain-freeze moment at the Nov. 9 GOP debate a distant memory. He was later quoted as saying, “We need a leader, not a reader” in explaining his foreign policy stumbles. I’m positive Cain wouldn’t have had any patience for such flip remarks from staffers who didn’t do their homework at Godfather’s Pizza, National Restaurant Association or when he served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Such behavior diminished his candidacy and viewed by many as lacking the presidential gravitas needed to tackle foreign affairs, national defense and other substantive matters.

Be prepared for everything because anything goes. That’s what L. Douglas Wilder once shared with me when I interviewed him during his campaign for the governorship of the state of Virginia two decades ago. “When you run for office, you must be beyond reproach,” asserted Wilder, who eventually became the first African American elected to the statehouse. Since then, a few candidates have survived scandal to be voted into office. The most notable: Bill Clinton who was elected to the presidency in 1992 despite allegations of an extramarital affair and being dogged with other such charges during his tenure in the Oval Office. The charges against Cain has hammered his campaign with the impact of a wrecking ball. Moreover, he has yet to have the “stand-by-your-man” moment similar to Bill and Hillary Clinton‘s appearance on 60 Minutes in which they displayed side-by-side husband-and-wife unity . For seasoned, masterful politicians like the Clintons they proved to be an exception to the rule. That’s unlikely to happen in this case. One thing is for sure: repeated denials and the use of a lawyer as mouthpiece has not—and will not—stop the press from its pursuit of details nor negative speculation.

As a front runner,  you’re constantly in the spotlight. Your whole life is an open book as the press and public reviews past performance, previous polices and character clues. It’s similar to an onion-peeling process, uncovering layer after layer until they discover the candidate’s core.

For the defiant Cain, it appears he will be a footnote as a 2012 GOP front runner. For those seeking office—or any major position—the mistakes of his campaign serves as a primer on actions to avoid as you get ready for prime time.

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