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Race and Beyond: Black Against Black in the Next Presidential Contest

SOURCE: AP/Patrick Semansky

Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain speaks at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Friday, June 17, 2011.

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Could it really happen? Could the 2012 presidential ballot feature a top-line, smack-down, pizza-making executive Herman Cain as the Republican Party challenger against President Barack Obama, the Democratic incumbent?

As I write this, Cain is the statistical leader in a crowded field of Republican candidates. If the election were held today—daring to believe an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released last week—Cain would be his party’s nominee. The poll conducted by the usually reliable and bipartisan polling tandem of Democratic Peter D. Hart and Republican Bill McInturff revealed Cain as the front-running choice of 27 percent of likely Republican voters, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 23 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 16 percent.

Such numbers mean nothing at this stage of the game. Or do they? Well, I think the poll figures are significant, but not because they paint a path for Cain toward the White House. Rather, I find it noteworthy—inspiring, in fact—that a black man is the darling of the Republican presidential field. What’s more, his support is anchored by Tea Party radicals who are widely demonized as a racist fringe of the Republican Party.

Is that progress or not? In a perverse way, I believe it is.

What Cain’s thus-far successful campaign tells us is that there’s no solitary way to be a black American. If we care to listen and learn, Cain is telling the nation and world that black people are as varied and unique as white snowflakes. Political opportunism—in Cain’s case his publicly espousing views privately shared by a few conservative blacks and consequently finding an embrace among many conservative whites—like ideology and political leanings, knows no racial boundaries.

For sure, Cain’s extreme conservatism swivels 180 degrees opposite to almost everything President Obama represents. And that is precisely what makes him popular with the people who desperately want to believe in what Cain represents. So it comes as little surprise that another poll reported this week by FoxNews.com suggests that if the election were held today, Cain would actually beat the president. This poll, conducted by the right-leaning Rasmussen Reports, says such a hypothetical heads-up contest shows Cain collecting 43 percent of the general election vote to Obama’s 41 percent.

Never mind that almost none of those Cain supporters today are black. Cain’s rise to political prominence among right-wing zealots represents the pretzel-like knots that his almost exclusively white supporters must contort themselves into to deny President Obama’s reelection. Cain’s black skin, folksy language, and cocky conservatism shields haters of our president from accusations of racism. To be fair, liberal extremists were similarly overjoyed to cast a ballot for Obama, as if doing so proved that they—indeed, the nation—had entered some imaginary postracial period.

Simply put, if President Obama and Cain find themselves face to face in a series of presidential debates, then both ultra-conservatives and liberal extremists would have to admit on some gut level that they were staring into a funhouse mirror—the similarity of the candidates’ skin contrasted by their very different politics, the latter of which would have put both men on the ballot, couldn’t be any brighter if one candidate was ebony and the other was ivory.

But they’re both black and Americans. For this brief moment they’re standard bearers for their respective political parties. I’d love nothing more than to see them as the last two candidates standing. Perhaps their respective skin tones would cancel out racial concerns during the presidential debates, allowing voters to see only the sharp and distilled clash of governing ideologies.

Imagine the mind-blowing experience that would produce all across our nation, especially across Dixie. Would white and black voters alike flip coins to decide which lever to pull? Or would they just vote for one of the black men based on what they say on the campaign trail and be done with it?

About four years ago I pooh-poohed the idea of a black guy with a Muslim name getting elected president. Today, again, I’m wishing and hoping for something my heart wants to see but my head tells me is impossible. Could political lightning strike America once again, short-circuiting our tired notions about race and voting? Can the Republican Party establishment link arms with the Tea Party enthusiasts to unite behind the only candidate that Fox News says can beat President Obama?

The Atlantic‘s Chris Good labeled Cain “the Alternate-Reality Candidate” and speculated he could very well be the Republican Party’s flag bearer come next fall. Either Cain will make Romney appear “more real by comparison” and deliver the nomination to the former governor, says Good, or “Cain will win the nomination, at which point a portal will open connecting us to a parallel world ruled by charismatic antipoliticians with simple and catchy tax plans.”

Goodness, I hope so. As improbable as it seems, I can’t help myself from cheering Cain on to the nomination. Just the idea of him standing cheek-by-jowl with Obama in the run-up to the election—the two of them leading their respective parties, with almost nothing in common save their black skins—thrills me like nothing else in the strange, strange world of politics.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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