WASHINGTON — Herman Cain drew a line in the sand, and now he has to hope it sets like concrete.
Cain, a surprise leader in recent Republican presidential polls, has responded to allegations of sexual harassment with a series of definitive statements that invite closer scrutiny of his past conduct.
During 40 years in the business world, Cain says, he’s never sexually harassed anyone. He ticks off a long list of employers — Burger King, Coca-Cola, Godfather’s Pizza and more — and says he was “never, never” accused of impropriety. “There’s nothing else there to dig up,” he says.
It may well be that Cain has nothing to hide. But any number of politicians past were derailed after issuing a public invitation to check out their conduct, none more famously than Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart in 1987.
The Colorado senator challenged reporters to “follow me around” after questions arose about whether he’d been stepping out on his wife.
“I’m serious,” he said. “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”
Reporters caught model Donna Rice entering Hart’s townhouse while his wife was away. And a photo surfaced of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap near a yacht called the “Monkey Business.”
Hart was soon out of the presidential race.
Two decades later, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich told people they were welcome to tape his public and private phone calls.
“Whatever I say is always lawful,” he insisted.
A day later, he was arrested on corruption charges — built in part on what prosecutors had heard when they bugged his phones.
Now Blagojevich is awaiting sentencing on federal corruption convictions.
Hart and Blagojevich already were in peril when they publicly invited extra scrutiny, but their bravado ultimately only sharpened their comeuppance.
With Cain’s firm declarations about his past conduct, “he’s rolling out the ‘Monkey Business’ talking points,” says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “You’re effectively drawing a line in the sand and doing exactly what Gary Hart did, which is challenging people to go back in your life and turn over every rock to see if there are other incidents.”
That’s fine if Cain’s past is unblemished.
But it raises the stakes for the businessman-candidate and could serve to inflate the importance of even marginal information, Lehane says.
Any new allegations may seem to be “much bigger than they in fact warrant, because you have made it a much bigger deal, and you have issued this challenge,” he says.
Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management expert, says sexual harassment allegations are easy to make, and it can be difficult to sort out the truth. A candidate has little control over that. Issuing extended denials may risk broadening a story when it’s time to move on.
By going into such detail with his denials, Dezenhall says, Cain may be unnecessarily “over-egging the pudding.”
“At some point, less is more.”
Both Lehane and Dezenhall said the most important thing is for a candidate to get his story straight from the beginning and avoid backpedaling and revisions.
Cain already has made a series of conflicting statements since word surfaced Sunday that he had been accused of sexual harassment when he ran the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
Cain first said he was unaware of a financial settlement given to a female employee in connection with allegations that he had engaged in sexually suggestive behavior. He later acknowledged he was aware of an “agreement” but not a settlement.
Politico earlier reported that the restaurant association had given financial settlements to at least two female employees who accused Cain of sexually suggestive behavior.
Cain’s campaign manager has insisted the story is over. Done.
That looks to be wishful thinking.
“That’s like the pitcher being able to call his own balls and strikes,” says Lehane. “That’s not how it works in baseball, and that’s not how it works in politics.”