One of the points I made repeatedly during the 2008 campaign was that Barack Obama had thought long and hard, over a period of many years, about how his race would factor into his political career. You may remember that when he was catching fire, conservatives gushed over him -- my favorite quote was from culture warrior William Bennett, who said that Obama "never brings race into it. He never plays the race card. Talk about the black community—he has taught the black community you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don't have to act like Al Sharpton. You can talk about the issues." I wrote a column that January predicting that they'd get over it pretty darn quick, which didn't take a genius to figure out.
I bring this up because Herman Cain seems to be demonstrating that he didn't think quite as carefully about what his race represents to those in his party. I'll let the folks at New York explain what happened when Cain got asked about Rick Perry's interestingly named hunting ranch:
So far, only one of Perry's GOP rivals has commented on N-WordheadGate: Herman Cain. Asked yesterday about the story, Cain, the only black Republican in the race, lashed out at Perry. "Since Governor Perry has been going there for years to hunt, I think that it shows a lack of sensitivity for a long time of not taking that word off of that rock and renaming the place," Cain said on This Week. On Fox News Sunday, Cain added that there "isn’t a more vile, negative word than the N-word and for him to leave it there as long as he did before, I hear, that they finally painted over it, is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country."
You might find Cain's reaction completely fair, not to mention understandable for someone who grew up in the segregated South and understands whereof he speaks. But if you couldn't see what the reaction from the right would be, you haven't been paying attention to them lately. Conservatives took to blogs and Twitter to blast Cain for abetting in a smear of Perry and helping out the dastardly liberal media (that New York piece has some of the choice tweets).
Cain hasn't been shy about talking about race, and has offered himself as a living rebuke to the idea that black people should automatically support Democrats. But he apparently didn't quite get that he's become Republicans' New Black Friend. A big part of his job is to show the world, just by his presence, that conservatives aren't racists. But that means buying into the prevailing conservative narrative on race, which says that anti-black racism is a thing of the past, and the only racism that exists anymore is racism directed at white people. And the critical corollary is that there is no more vile kind of racism than white people being falsely accused of racism.
So when a candidate gets accused of being racially insensitive at best (I haven't actually seen anyone accuse Perry of harboring bigotry in his heart), Cain's job was supposed to be to attack the media and validate Perry's pure heart, even if they're opponents. The fact that he didn't understand this shows that he doesn't really understand his party. And he just lost a whole lot of potential support.