Heading into tonight’s umpteenth Repub debate (this one is in Vegas, sponsored by CNN and others, broadcast on CNN at 7 p.m. Minnesota time, and the increasingly desperate Jon Huntsman has decided to boycott it as a statement of his devotion to New Hampshire, seriously), the big story is Herman Cain and his bid to be something more than the latest flavor-of-the-month righty challenger to Mitt Romney.
Cain is being “vetted” by the media at the speed of pixel. It’s pretty amazing to see how quickly the information elite can take a man from being known for one or two things (in Cain’s case, I’d say that a month ago the two things were “he’s black” and “Godfather’s Pizza”) to a man with a series of provocative ideas, a complicated life story, a network of connections and a challenge to various elements of conventional political wisdom.
The Cain moment is fascinating and bizarre. I’m not prepared to write him off until we see more, both of how he performs as a mold-breaking candidate and of how his admirers respond to the vetting.
Political analysts have several reasons why Cain can’t last. He doesn’t have the campaign funds, for example, and his strategy is all wrong because he isn’t spending enough time in Iowa and New Hampshire. Maybe so. But the righties are not playing the game according to the old rules, and neither is Cain.
I also believe that Cain’s race (did you notice that he’s black, and by the way, he rejects the term “African-American”) is helping him. I’ve long been troubled by a lefty willingness to ascribe racist motives to righties — in general and especially during the Obama era — without the kind of direct evidence of race prejudice that should be required for such a charge. I don’t doubt that some righties are racist. But it is wrong to make a general assumption without more evidence and now, especially so among a group that has elevated a black man to top of the recent polls.
As amazing as it is to those of who go back to the 1950s that America has a black president, think how amazing it would be if both major parties had black nominees in 2012. Wow.
OK, that was a digression. You’ve heard the basics. Cain comes from a poor family and has become rich as a businessman. (You may not yet have noticed that he lived in Minneapolis in the late ’70s, working for Pillsbury.) He was part of a group that bought Godfather’s Pizza from Pillsbury. He also was chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve of Kansas City, which may cost him support with the elements of the right that hate the Fed.
He has never held elective office (although he sought a U.S. Senate seat from Georgia in 2004 and lost in the primary). He has written several books (which are now being sped-read by many journalists and opposition researchers) and worked as a radio talk show host. He is married to a shy woman who has so far not campaigned publicly for him.
As I mentioned, less-obvious information is coming to light rapidly. Here area couple of angles upon which I stumbled that you might not have seen yet.
9-9-9 is not the final tax plan
Yes, the 9-9-9 tax plan is regressive and Cain has now acknowledged that it will not cut taxes for everyone. But did you know that the 9-9-9 is not Cain’s ultimate tax plan? He is a believer in the so-called “Fair Tax,” which would substitute a roughly 30 percent sales tax for the entire federal tax code. I say roughly because there are disputes about the right way to calculate the sales tax that would be necessary to replace all existing federal revenue streams.
The Fair Tax would be mind-bogglingly regressive if not for the fact that the plan includes a so-called “prebate” in which every American would get a check from the government equal to the amount the Fair Tax would add to the purchase of a minimum amount of “essential” goods and services. My own best understanding is that the prebate could keep the Fair Tax from hitting the poor too hard. And the end of the income tax would big a big cut for the rich. So the middle class would end up paying more.
Fair Tax advocates dispute that. But, without going into the merits any more deeply, Herman Cain makes no secret of the fact that he hopes his 9-9-9 tax will be only a step on the way to the Fair Tax. Right on his campaign website, he says: “Amidst a backdrop of the economic renewal created by the 9-9-9 Plan, I will begin the process of educating the American people on the benefits of continuing the next step to the Fair Tax.”
I’m not in favor of either of Cain’s big tax ideas, but you have to give him credit for putting out a plan. Michele Bachmann, who would also like to be the darling of the right, has also said she wants to do away with the entire federal tax code and has played footsy with the Fair Tax for years, but has never been willing to say it is her plan.
I also believe that part of Cain’s current surge is that he — even in contrast to flaming righty like Bachmann — would rather acknowledge his attraction to a radical idea than come across as a trimmer.
Complete privatization of Social Security
For some reason, even though it is only a transitional proposal on taxes, 9-9-9 has become Cain’s signature proposal, even though his plan for Social Security is still more radical.
Again, the other leading candidates do not have honest proposals on Social Security, presumably because they know the downsides and the “third rail” gag.
Cain advocates the Chilean model to transform Social Security. This amounts to the complete privatization of the program, not just the baby-step optional 2-percentage-point toe in the water that former President Bush proposed in 2005.
He hasn’t been asked about it nearly as much. And the idea cannot be taken seriously unless and until Cain specifies a transition plan.
Here’s the problem. Social Security is currently based on a pay-as-you-go model. Every penny that the government collects in Social Security “contributions” is needed to pay benefits to those already retired or receiving other Social Security benefits, as such disability or survivor benefits. Even if current and future workers continue to pay every penny of their FICA to take care of those already receiving benefits, the system is projected to hit a shortfall in a few years.
But if you are going to divert those current FICA taxes into an individual investment account to (hopefully) grow in the stock and bond markets until the current worker needs them for retirement, you would either have to cut off current recipients or borrow several trillion dollars to pay off the system’s existing liabilities. Cain, to my knowledge, has not said how he will deal with the “transition problem.”
Cain’s other money problem
A big theme in the recent political analysis is that he may not have a chance because he isn’t doing things the way the other candidates do them and specifically because his campaign treasury is tiny, compared with the war chests of Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.
True. But, as some of the pieces note, Cain is deeply enmeshed in the political and policy organizations of the megarich Koch Brothers and their Americans for Prosperity. This is big, for raising scary flags among lefties but also because, given the sorry loophole-ridden state of the Supreme-Court-destroyed campaign finance regimen in the ear of the SuperPAC, the Kochs and their rich allies could substantially offset Cain’s campaign finance shortage if they decide he is their guy and has a chance to become president.
By the way, I did hear Cain give his pitch in person at the RightOnline conference this summer. He did not steal the show that day. That was during Bachmann’s surge and she definitely busted the applause-o-meter. But Cain generated more excitement that day than Tim Pawlenty did. Anyway, I relistened to the tape of Cain’s RightOnline presentation and found that Cain’s biggest applause line occurred when he described his response to issue of his lack of Washington experience. It went like this:
“How can you run for president when you don’t know how Washington works? Yes I do. It doesn’t.”
He also introduced himself this way. “That’s Cain. C-A-I-N. Like the Bible, but I didn’t kill anybody.”