In an act of Machiavellian brilliance, Stephen Colbert has done the impossible: he has put cheese into the pizza crust. His announcement Monday night that he would be measuring interest in his presidential run by Herman Cain's tally is a move so slick the mainstream political press has yet to fully realize its implications. Had we a capable Fourth Estate, they would realize what the Second City veteran has accomplished, and how his non-candidacy could change the course of the election.
Political science students of the future will study Colbert's tactical genius here. In 2009, before a decision was even rendered by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, Colbert began cultivating a small but steadily growing opposition to its eventual outcome. The rise of the Colbert SuperPAC has been well documented, but in his most recent move Colbert has finally answered the question on the minds of his followers: What the hell is he going to do with all of that money?
From Hulk Hogan to Donald Trump to Joe Lieberman, many comedians and entertainers have run faux bids for the Presidency (even Colbert himself, previously). It's not a bad way to publicize yourself a little bit, maybe buy 12 seconds on E! By utilizing the GOP's favorite tactic--working within the letter of the law while desecrating its spirit--Stephen Colbert has moved into legitimacy, stealthily outwitting the punditry and the political system itself.
The scope of Colbert's maneuver is boggling in its potential. While his announcement of an exploratory committee (and the SuperPAC transfer extravaganza) drew some media attention over the weekend, much of it was quick to point out that he couldn't possibly win. Colbert has demonstrated exactly how inside-the-box mainstream politicos can think. In co-opting Herman Cain's vacated real estate on the Republican ballot--in an open primary state--he has not only proved them short-sighted, he has effectively transformed the South Carolina primary into a general election in which only Republicans can lose. All while exposing the most absurd of Citizens United's flaws and getting a referendum on corporate personhood on the GOP ballot, just for kicks.
Unlike the other early primary states, a win in South Carolina means something. They pick presidents there, the saying goes. (Ask John McCain circa 2000). Further, Colbert is a proud native son of the Palmetto State. Late last year he tried and failed to get a non-binding resolution included on the primary ballot asking South Carolinians to decree whether corporations are people or "only people are people." Because anyone can vote in a primary under South Carolina's rules, Colbert has opened the door for a viable attempt at the Rush Limbaugh "Vote for Hillary" switcheroo from 2008. This strategy has manifested itself in various ways through electoral history, but in this election the conditions are staggeringly ripe for success.
Consider: Turnout in primary elections, even in "active" years, is usually comparatively low (around 100,000 in Iowa, 250,000 in New Hampshire). 2011 was occupied by... Occupy, a movement known for its ability and enthusiasm in flash-mobbing. In 2008, more than 800,000 South Carolinians voted for candidate Barack "Corporate Reform" Obama. If even a fraction of South Carolina's progressive voters can be encouraged to vote Cain in the primary, Colbert will have succeeded in bringing utter havoc to the GOP's primary process. Imagine, just for a moment, the unlikely event that Colbert/Cain were to win, or even place. George Will would choke on his tie, and Karl Rove, beaten at his own game, might throw himself in front of a bus to relieve the frustration. Fox News correspondents, already challenged with numbers, would dizzy themselves trying to calculate who really won.
Obviously, it's up to South Carolina's liberal voters to take advantage of the opportunity Colbert has provided them. It has long been a truism that comedians are the only citizens among us licensed to speak the absolute truth. Colbert (and his partner in crime, Jon Stewart) have set South Carolina Saturday up as a chance for activist troublemakers to send a loud, clear message to Washington and the media. The saddest irony of the situation is that "the 99%" can do more to effect change by voting for Herman Cain in January than they can Barack Obama in November.