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After debate, GOP still looking for anybody but Romney

Herman Cain speaking as Mitt Romney looks on during Tuesday's debate.
REUTERS/Scott Eells
Herman Cain speaking as Mitt Romney looks on during Tuesday's debate.

It’s hard to believe how recently it was and how strongly it was believed that Rick Perry was the frontrunner in the race for the Repub nomination for prez. Perry may yet recover. I don’t do predictions. But he did nothing to help himself at last night’s all-economy debate. He was mostly invisible and when he did have the floor, he was as bad as ever, and the current Perry buzz is around the question: “After another bad debate, Is Perry finished?

Substantial elements of the Republican base are determined to find someone other than Mitt Romney to nominate for president. But whoever becomes the leader of the anybody-but-Romney ticket never seems to last. Donald Trump was a joke. Minnesota’s own Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann each had their moment as the designated Romney-slayer. Journalists who wrote wait-till-you-get-a-load-of-Jon-Huntsman pieces are a little embarrassed. Etc. Etc.

Last night was Herman Cain’s big moment. He is fun to watch and sticks out in the crowd with his sense of humor, his CEO-philosophizing, his knack for at least seeming to give specific answers when the others are dodging, and of course, his bold 9-9-9 tax plan.

(If you feel ready to focus on the details – and in many cases absence of detail – in the 9-9-9 plan, this piece by a serious Republican economic thinker will raise the right questions.)

Reading around the web this morning, I find the reviews are mixed as to how Cain did. But the punditocracy is unanimous that Romney continues to be the master of this domain. Not funny. Not likeable. Not excitable. But relatively coherent and presidential.

The idea of focusing an entire debate on the economy struck me as a good one, and I haven’t given up on the idea, but looking back on last night I don’t have a coherent understanding of what the Republican field wants to do to improve the – you know, what’s that thing? – the economy, other than make Barack Obama a one – term – president.

Some highlights
A few moments I noted during the debate:

Newt Gingrich wants to rehabilitate the charge that Obamacare includes “death panels.”

Bachmann still claims that Obama’s real secret plan — based on something she claims to have heard him mutter at a meeting — is to let Medicare collapse and be replaced by Obamacare for the seniors. Bachmann also said that being a federal tax lawyer is “what I do for a living.” Bachmann is 55 and spent four years as an IRS lawyer. Later, she said she spent her whole life in the private sector. Government lawyer, foster mother paid by the state, state senator, congresswoman.

Huntsman wants less invasive background checks on candidates for high government positions. (Huntsman’s line that when he heard Herman Cain had a 9-9-9, he thought it was the price of a pizza was a good gag. His other effort, to make a light reference to the recent round of Mormon-bashing, was a small disaster for him, but I give him credit for trying.)

Cain, who understands the importance of simplicity in marketing, faults Romney for having a 59-point plan on the economy, and suggested that Romney can’t name all the points. Romney’s reply that simple answers are nice but often inadequate, was an adult moment.

Here’s a taste of Andrew Sullivan’s live blog of the debate:

“8.11 pm. Gingrich wants to throw Chris Dodd and Barney Frank in jail. And then he's railing against Ben Bernanke's 'secret power.' Wow. You begin to see the entire alternative universe. The federal government created credit default swaps and the recession. So far, this is actually an interesting conflict between the liberal intelligentsia of Bloomberg and the WaPo meeting ... well, aliens. The questions keep referring to a world that the candidates do not believe exists.”

Here’s Howard Kurtz with one of the more favorable reactions to Cain’s big night:

““The surprise of the evening was Herman Cain, and not just because he’s an able and colorful debater. The New Hampshire event cemented his status as a top-tier contender, as much of the conversation turned on his 9-9-9 plan, which includes a national sales tax. His rivals, with one eye on his surge in the polls, kept bringing up the plan. If you just dropped in from Mars, you’d assume the former pizza magnate was leading the field.”

And here’s Jonathan Chait with one of the less flattering reviews of Romney’s evening:

“Mitt Romney hewed to his constant strategy of turning every question into an over-the-top attack on President Obama, while limiting his exposure to unpopular policy proposals. Romney's theory is that Republican primary voters are angry but uninformed and thus that the extreme conservatism they have displayed since 2009 reflects primal rage rather than any coherent worldview. He believes he can mollify them by satisfying their emotional animus toward Obama, while continuing to advocate policies that, in many cases, are identical to the president's.

“Once again, Romney defended his Massachusetts health care plan by citing its reliance on private insurance, and the way it was designed to cover the uninsured without changing health care for the already-insured. This is exactly what Obama did, too. But, of course, by describing his plan in reasonable terms, Romney realizes that Republicans will conclude it must be different from the hated Obamacare, which is based on socialism and death panels. Romney's contempt for his electorate continues to endear him to me.”

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Comments (12)

Interesting comment from Chait. Romney is campaigning as a Barack Obama who, unlike the president, can get a moderate agenda passed.

"After debate, GOP still looking for anybody but Romney" At what point do they realize that a fringe element has control of the party?

I believe Mr. Sullivan has come closest to describing, not just this debate, but all the Republican debates. In truth, I don't expect Sullivan's line to lose its relevancy for quite some time:

“The questions keep referring to a world that the candidates do not believe exists.”

The problem, of course – well, one of several problems – is that the world Sullivan is referring to actually does exist, and is becoming more real by the day.

From the outset, Romney seemed to be the one person in the Republican pack with the experience and attitude which could make him an effective President. He is also not emcumbered by the dogma which affects the others, and makes it very difficult for any of them to work effectively with the Democrats.

"Anyone but Romney", yeah, because Romney can't win against Obama with a record of Obama lite.

Is Cain's 999 plan simplistic, yeah. But #1 he *has* a plan, which puts him 100% ahead of Obama and everyone else, and #2 who favors cryptoclastic tax law?

Tax accountants, leftists and the IRS.

Thanks for the link to Bartlett's article. I hope everyone takes the time to click through. It's as deeply into 9-9-9 as I care to go. Even without these details, I found the prospect of an 18% tax (9% income, 9% sales tax) daunting. Cain's plan would have increased my federal taxes significantly last year and my itemized deductions barely exceed the standard deduction. Eliminate all of my deductions (primarily state and local income and property taxes) and my bill would go up another couple thousand.

Many industries likely would take a hit from the sales tax, including one that we just bailed out: the auto industry. Between Minnesota's sales tax and Cain's federal sales tax, a $20,000 car would result in more than $3,000 in sales taxes. That's certain to spur sales of used vehicles, to which his tax would not apply for some reason.

I was lucky enough to visit Ireland this summer, where an almost 10% VAT is included in every over-the-counter transaction (and where we encountered a fair number of under-the-counter propositions intended to evade that tax). If you like paying $18 for a hamburger or fish and chips, a 9% federal sales tax is a good way to get there.

Eric, thanks for another good report, keep up the good work.

Did you know if turn 9-9-9 on its head it becomes 6-6-6? Mr Cain clearly has the mark of the Beast on him. It's odd the evangelical wing of the GOP hasn't figured this one out yet.

"There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."
H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920

At least Obama knows that there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

Bruce Bartlett, author of the article on Mr. Cain to which you provided a link, says it all in one of his concluding paragraphs: "At a minimum, the Cain plan is a distributional monstrosity. The poor would pay more while the rich would have their taxes cut, with no guarantee that economic growth will increase and good reason to believe that the budget deficit will increase."

The so-called "fair tax," his final step, would place a consumption tax on all purchases -- food, clothing, rent or house payments; electricity for lighting, heating and cooling; transportation, doctors appointments and medication. Virtually every penny of a poor person's or family's income is spent to maintain a meager existence. That every one of those pennies spent would be taxed would harm the poor terribly. Meanwhile the rich, who spend a small fraction on these goods will get off almost scot free -- especially if there is no tax on capital gains.

Mr. Cain is a market fundamentalist of the worst order and would destroy our economy if allowed to put his 9-9-9 into effect.

The Republican who would do the least damage is Ron Paul. His ideas on taxation are almost as bad as Cain's, BUT he would bring all our troops home from the various wars and close all or most of our nearly 1,000 foreign bases.

The irony is that the VAT is probably the ideal tax from a conservative point of view. As a broad-based tax on consumption it creates less economic distortion per dollar of revenue than any other tax--certainly much less than the income tax.

Economically, the European system is much more efficient. 'Progressive' taxes discourage work and encourage evasion. Taxing to pay for benefits for wealthy people is clearly inefficient, and serves a purely political purpose.

Romney can't win, Swiftee?

Eric's title accurately describes people like you who would rather see the election lost than nominate Romney.

Every...Single...One of the remaining major GOP candidates is seriously flawed. Sane GOPers, like Pawlenty and Christie, have endorsed Romney.

Cain, Perry, Ron Paul?

Are you feeling lucky?

Make my day.

Actually, I think that Mr. Swifte is a closet Democrat.