7 Nov 2011

Silvio Berlusconi, Herman Cain – you guys should talk

There are two men in this world who have probably never exchanged a word, who seem on the surface so different but who actually have a lot in common. One is black, the other white. One is trying to run America. The other is – still – trying to run Italy.

Both represent a rejection of traditional party politics. Both are self-made millionaires, have been dogged by alleged “issues” with their errant libidos and are facing political oblivion. Or not. “Herman Cain, meet Silvio Berlusconi. You guys should talk.”

The obituaries, written and rewritten for Silvio Berlusconi, may once again prove to be immature. The world may think of him as a vaudeville buffoon but he has shown a Houdini-like ability to wriggle out of a tight parliamentary corner with a mixture of pleading, bribery and arm twisting.

The economic case for him to depart from power is rock solid. The political one has got more complicated. He has spent the last few days spelling out some uncomfortable truths to those members of his party, flirting with rebellion. “If I go, Italy will probably hold new elections and we will all go down together. So stick with me, wait for a ministerial reward and weather the storm.”

I am not sure whether this old trick will work again, especially since Italy now finds it almost impossible to borrow money on the markets and Silvio Berlusconi has been widely defined as the problem, as opposed to the solution.

But Berlusconi is gambling on the political potential of hurt national pride. When Europe, the IMF and the US are all ganging up against Rome and forcing Europe’s third largest economy to spend detention time with that new headmistress Christine Lagarde of the IMF, there could well be a nationalist backlash.

Berlusconi, the self-made billionaire who reinvented Italian politics from scratch, has made a political career out of exploiting resentment at the arrogance and entitlement of Italy’s elites, even though he is one of the country’s richest men.

Several thousand miles away Herman Cain’s ears should be burning. His popularity amongst conservative Republican voters seems to be holding up, despite the fact that a fourth woman is about to come forward with charges of sexual harassment at the National Restaurant Association. (Was it all the food and beverage on the job that encouraged this alleged behaviour?)

Cain raised more money than ever last week after the allegations distracted voters from his 999 tax reform plan. How could you turn your attention from something so riveting?

For now Cain still seems to be benefiting from a backlash amongst his supporters who still see the accusations as part of a smear campaign orchestrated by the left-wing, mainstream media. Conservative radio titan Rush Limbaugh has been leading charge to denounce what he calls the racist attacks against Cain, even though Limbaugh himself once told a critical black caller to his radio show to “take the bone out of his nose”.

If the accusations don’t become more concrete and if Cain can credibly claim the benefit of the doubt, he may well come out of this escapade stronger, not weaker. So be it. It will make my life more interesting and the election campaign more compelling. “Two brothers fighting over the White House… now that really IS historic,” as one black comedian put it.

If Berlusconi manages to cling to power, it is the economic consequences – for all of us- that could be historic.

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