After three years of Sarah Palin's mental void garnished with Michelle Bachmann's dissociative mania, Herman Cain probably makes you want to raise your arms to the sky and ask, "Who is this bozo, and why do I have to watch him, too?" If Bachmann added insult to Palin's injury, then Cain's the horrible clown they send to the hospital to cheer you up when you're dying of the kind of wasting disease usually contracted by workers in former Eastern Bloc chemical facilities.
If you've been watching the Republican debates, you'll remember Cain, because he's the black one. His qualification for being president is that he was the CEO of Godfather's Pizza, which is known for serving something that tastes like a bunch of mashed pizza rolls blowtorched on top of a Lunchables box. Not its contents, just the box.
As a candidate, he acts like someone who's eaten exclusively from Godfather's for years, which is to say, kind of dumb. He's declared himself 100 percent pro-life, except in cases of rape or incest—or not—or only when his family members get pregnant. He instructs liberals on the contents of the Constitution by quoting the Declaration of Independence. Most glaringly, he referred to the Palestinian "right of return" as "negotiable," when it is the exact opposite according to America's #1 Mid-East ally, Israel. And his campaign commercials are fucking insane.
Despite—or maybe because of—his apparent idiocy, he won the Florida straw poll, and he's leading in Iowa today, despite barely campaigning in the state. He energizes the Republican base and acts as a focal point for anti-government resentment, fear, and distrust, just like countless candidates before him. But what he most effectively represents is a whopping great distraction and a way to test the popularity of bizarre policy positions. He might be kind of an idiot, but he's a useful idiot for the GOP.
Mitt Romney's been the smartest candidate among a terrible field for months now, but he's got a problem: no one actually likes him because he's insanely boring. Mitt Romney is the sort of person who would stop mid-thrust to clarify his missionary position. The only really captivating thing he can do is fuck up, and he and his team are determined to avoid that, even if it means 18 months of staying grimly, flavorlessly on-message, which is not something anyone wants to watch.
Herman Cain's bizarro clown routine provides welcome relief and takes the heat off of Romney. Karl Rove will sternly wave one of his chins at Cain, shaming his unseriousness, but this is just theater. Having a debate about whether Herman Cain is an idiot and a liability will drive a news cycle even better than Herman standing at a podium and accidentally saying Jesus was a Mexican, because that's meta-textual political theater. Suddenly we're not just talking about whether Herman Cain is dumb but instead whether Herman Cain is a legitimate dumb candidate and whether being dumb is a dumb strategy.
Meanwhile, Cain grants the GOP an additional favor by essentially beta testing any crazy policy imaginable. Take Cain's "9-9-9 Plan," which is like the "regular price, four bucks, four bucks" of economics. It is viciously regressive, costs the government billions, radically shifts the tax burden away from anyone with money to remove money from those jangling after it in their pockets, and it would never—thank God—get approved by Congress. But it's simple. Voters like simple things. They make us feel knowledgeable about politics instead of rightfully ashamed that someone thinks grade-school mnemonics should be enough to construct an economic plan for 300 million people living in differing degrees of prosperity. Thanks to Cain, all of a sudden we're talking about a flat tax again, and Romney's already backtracked his 1996 statement dismissing flat taxes as "a tax cut for fat cats."
If Cain flames out (he started this week, getting accused of sexual harassment), Romney can back away from any position they held in common. If Cain somehow retains solid support through the primaries, Romney's free to co-opt any of Cain's positions, like a vulture picking at a carcass. In the meantime, he's spared 24-hour coverage because Cain keeps appearing at the top of the newshour, alternately glowering and maliciously sneering, like Clarence Thomas crossed with an internet trollface. Even when Cain eventually loses, he'll have served his purpose for the GOP.