The State of Cain


Presidential candidate Herman Cain held a press conference to address the sexual harassment allegations against him on Tuesday afternoon, and categorically denied them in the strongest possible terms: “The charges and the allegations I absolutely reject.  They simply did not happen.  They simply did not happen.”

“I have never acted inappropriately with anyone, period,” Cain declared, expressing a willingness to take a lie detector test.  He said he called a press conference to directly address the detailed allegations from Sharon Bialek, the first of his accusers to identify herself, because “that’s who Herman Cain is.” 

Cain went on to say that he didn’t clearly remember his interaction with Bialek when the story broke, and watched her press conference with lawyer Gloria Allred.  “The first reaction in my mind was, ‘I don’t even know who this woman is,’” he recalled.

Cain went on to accuse “the Democrat machine in America,” including the media, of bringing out false allegations of sexual harassment against him for political purposes.  He accused the media of “stalking” members of his family since the story broke, and asked them to deal with him directly.  As if determined to prove his point about media bias, one of the first questions thrown at him by a reporter was “Do you believe sexual harassment is real?” even though Cain had just repeatedly stated he sees it as a serious problem, and has dealt with workplace incidents in his executive capacity.

Cain addressed the topic of his campaign’s confused early handling of the story, drawing a sharp distinction between the severance agreements reached by his original, anonymous accusers with the National Restaurant Association and a sexual harassment “settlement.”  He said that since he was not directly involved in the severance agreements, he did not initially recall their details, and was answering honestly when he denied knowledge of any sexual harassment “settlements.”

Part of Cain’s problem has been the amateur, and occasionally ridiculous, behavior of his campaign team.  A lot of the “confused Cain response” we saw in the early days of the story was coming from aides, not Cain himself.  (And it’s entirely fair to hold Cain responsible for hiring and retaining those aides.  You may recall that President Obama offered his own ability to run a good campaign as one of his chief qualifications for the Presidency.  That was a bit overboard, but campaigning is, in part, a managerial exercise.)

Within hours of his press conference, campaign manager Mark Block (aka The Smoking Man) took to the airwaves to inform Sean Hannity of Fox News that Josh Kraushaar, son of newly identified original Cain accuser Karen Kraushaar, works for Politico, implying a sinister media-bias linkage.  There were two big problems with this accusation: (1) Josh Kraushaar isn’t related to Karen Kraushaar in any way, and (2) Josh Kraushaar doesn’t work for Politico any more, having decamped for National Journal last year.  Block apparently noticed the similarity of the unusual last name, and was so certain he had a scoop that he didn’t bother to perform five minutes of Google research before trotting it out on Fox News.

Cain insisted he’s not leaving the race – “ain’t gonna happen!” – and he will “not be deterred by false, anonymous, incorrect allegations.”  If he keeps Mark Block on his staff, however, he’s committing campaign suicide.  Political and financial supporters made jittery by the harassment allegations will head for the hills if a buffoon is still running the Cain campaign after tonight’s debate.  Amateur Hour needs to end right now.

Assuming Cain quits his Smoking Man habit, his press conference was either a powerful denial of false charges, or an absolutely maniacal “double down” on a losing bet.  He introduced no new details on Tuesday, and in fact adamantly maintains he doesn’t remember any.  He has no wiggle room whatsoever after this, which is not a problem if he’s innocent.  From a tactical standpoint, he didn’t have much wiggle room anyway.  The media would use even the most innocuous details he might have knowingly failed to provide as cudgels against him anyway.  If the accusers can’t provide anything solid to back up their charges, this will remain a contest of dueling reputations and clashing credibility.

Along those lines, the second named Cain accuser, Karen Kraushaar (who did not “come forward,” as a reporter asserted at the Cain press conference, but was discovered by a NewsCorp investigation) has begun to receive a little media scrutiny.  The Associated Press reports today that after she left the National Restaurant Association, she lodged another sexual harassment complaint against her next employer, using the same lawyer she employed at the NRA:

A woman who settled a sexual harassment complaint against GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain in 1999 complained three years later at her next job about unfair treatment, saying she should be allowed to work from home after a serious car accident and accusing a manager of circulating a sexually charged email, The Associated Press has learned.

Karen Kraushaar, 55, filed the complaint while working as a spokeswoman at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Justice Department in late 2002 or early 2003, with the assistance of her lawyer, Joel Bennett, who also handled her earlier sexual harassment complaint against Cain in 1999. Three former supervisors familiar with Kraushaar’s complaint, which did not include a claim of sexual harassment, described it for the AP under condition of anonymity because the matter was handled internally by the agency and was not public.

Kraushaar initially demanded “thousands of dollars in payment, a reinstatement of leave she used after the accident earlier in 2002, promotion on the federal pay scale and a one-year fellowship to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government” to settle these charges, but now she tells the AP she doesn’t remember all that, and views the incident as “relatively minor.” 

The Washington Post admitted today that it knew Kraushaar’s identity last week, “but did not publish it, honoring her wishes to remain private.”  If she remained anonymous, we would never have known about her subsequent big-bucks sexual harassment claim, and her oddly evasive recollection of the incident when questioned about it today. 

See how this works?  Defense against anonymous accusers in the Court of Public Opinion is virtually impossible, since the contest is one of credibility, and unknown figures have a rather obvious advantage over a major candidate roasting at the heart of a media firestorm.  Public judgment in the absence of hard data is all about the balance of doubt – and how do you “doubt” someone whose background, and even specific allegations, are entirely mysterious?  You either believe them implicitly, or reject them out of hand.

This leaves us right where we were with Sharon Bialek: are we allowed to ask any questions about these women at all?  Is even the most straightforward factual inquiry a “vicious” attempt to “tear the accusers apart?”  That obviously wasn’t the standard in place when Bill Clinton’s henchmen tore his accusers to shreds, with the cooperation of every branch of the media, from newsrooms to talk shows to late-night comedians. 

Kraushaar’s attorney says that now that her name has been exposed, she’s planning a joint press conference with Sharon Bialek, an idea Bialek’s attorney Gloria Allred endorses.  There have been rumors they will try to bring other women with allegations against Cain to the stage with them.

The public is left to choose between two conflicting narratives to explain all this.  Perhaps Herman Cain is a rampaging “monster” (as Kraushaar describes him) who has kept all but three or four of his despicable extra-marital adventures completely hidden… or, alternatively, he was out of control during his National Restaurant Association days, but got his mind right afterward.  Or maybe he’s the victim of politically and financially motivated false accusations.  Kraushaar might be “doubling down” herself, unwilling to let her reputation suffer by conceding she made a mountain out of a molehill at the National Restaurant Association.

We have been given testimony to support both of these narratives.  We have precious little hard evidence either way.  Everyone involved has loads of character witnesses.  Many observers have already made up their minds, one way or the other.  Those determined to make some fair-minded effort to get to the truth must be willing to question both sides… and if one side is declared beyond question, that’s not really possible, is it?

Asked about his political future at the press conference last night, Cain observed, “You don’t need 100% of the voters, you need 51%.”  That’s true, but you don’t have to lose 100% of your supporters to get blown out of a volatile presidential primary, either.  The media referees aren’t going to throw any flags on the sexual harassment play, so Cain always had a lot of yardage to cover for a touchdown.  How do you conclusively prove you didn’t do something? 

There have been some polls showing his support taking a hit over the past week, but perhaps the real test will come from tonight’s debate, when Cain has a chance to convince voters he can go the distance… and those who doubt his very forceful statement from yesterday have another chance to shop for an alternative.