The spectacular rise of Herman Cain over the last fortnight has cheered conservatives and caused no small amount of angst among establishment Republicans who worry that the former Godfather’s pizza executive can’t beat President Obama in the general election. But those fears may be bogus. A recent Rasmussen poll shows Herman Cain beating Obama in a head-to-head match-up 43-41%, the only GOP candidate who beats the president one-on-one in recent Rasmussen surveys.
But there are many conservatives who worry that Cain may not be ready for the big time, and that his inexperience in national politics will hinder his campaign going into the primaries and caucuses early next year. There is also concern that his signature tax overhaul proposal — the “9-9-9 Plan” — is flawed and would never pass Congress.
Recent polls are all telling the story of Cain’s remarkable surge. In addition to the Rasmussen poll, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has Cain atop the GOP field with 27% to Romney’s 23%. Former frontrunner Rick Perry clocks in at 16%. The last poll taken by the same media outlets in late August showed Perry on top with 38% and Romney a distant second with 23%. Cain registered just 5% at that time. A CNN poll shows Cain even with Romney in Iowa and South Carolina while vaulting into second place in New Hampshire. Another poll shows Cain doubling up Romney in South Carolina, 32-16%.
Cain’s rise is tied to the fall of Rick Perry, with his increase in support matching the decline in Perry’s numbers. Clearly, conservatives have found a new favorite, and it will be up to Cain to maintain the momentum as he moves forward.
But can he? This surge in support has come even as the candidate has little in the way of organization on the ground in key states like Iowa and New Hampshire — and precious little time to build one. His fundraising will no doubt pick up considerably, but there, too, he lacks infrastructure. Karl Rove said on Greta Van Sustern’s show, “If you’re running uphill, you better seize the opportunities that are given to you, and this is an opportunity which wandering around western Tennessee on a bus is not exploiting.” Rove was talking about Cain’s trips to Texas and Tennessee last week — states that don’t vote until March — while eschewing campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early primary states.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Cain is responding to the challenge. He plans on doubling his staff by the end of the month and open more offices in early campaign states. And as far as fundraising goes, his campaign pulled in $2 million the first two weeks of October, compared to $2.8 million the entire last quarter.
Beyond that, he is drawing huge crowds at his appearances. There were nearly 15,000 at six stops in Tennessee, including an overflow crowd of 2,000 that showed up in a barn in the tiny hamlet of Waverly. If professional politicos are concerned about Cain’s ability to reach out and touch ordinary voters, they need look no farther than this.
Worries aside, Cain’s rise is based on solid, political reasons that suggest he has the staying power to compete with former GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney all the way through the torturous primary process.
There really isn’t a secret to Cain’s success. At bottom, he is likable, charismatic, witty, charming, and bordering on brilliant. Those are characteristics any politician would sell his soul to possess and Cain has them in abundance. His debate performances have been outstanding, handling questions with surefooted aplomb. He articulates a conservative vision of government that speaks to the base of the Republican party in a way no other candidate can match. And for many, his lack of Washington experience is actually a plus, suggesting a campaign unsullied by the kind of “politics as usual” that most of the Tea Party wing of the GOP wishes to avoid.
But there are doubters and naysayers who view a Cain victory with a critical eye. Even the candidate admits he is not up to speed on many foreign policy issues. And opposition among some conservatives is building to his “9-9-9 plan” due to its lack of specificity and regressive characteristics.
The plan calls for scrapping the current tax system and substituting a 9% personal flat tax, a 9% corporate tax, and a 9% national sales tax. The merits of the plan include its simplicity, and the elimination of capital gains and other business taxes. As far as revenue, Cain says the plan “will produce initially the same amount of revenue that’s being generated today from the payroll tax, the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, personal income tax and the death tax.”
Cain has called the plan “a work in progress” and has added some wrinkles as the details of the plan are fleshed out. He recently called for exempting used goods like cars and houses from the personal flat tax as well as allowing business to deduct the purchase of goods made in America. While Cain says he had an “outside firm” (Fiscal Associates) score the numbers and that it is “revenue neutral,” some economists aren’t as sure of that claim.
Some conservatives are balking at the national sales tax portion of the plan. The Wall Street Journal reminds us that European countries started with a 10% tax in the 1960s, which has since ballooned to nearly 20% in some countries. Some on the right fear a similar tax creep here if a national sales tax were added.
The Journal points out:
A 9% rate when combined with state and local levies would mean a tax on goods of 17% or more in many places. The cries for exemptions would be great. The experience of the so-called Fair Tax that would impose a 23% national tax rate isn’t favorable, as even [Jim DeMint] learned when he nearly lost his first bid for the Senate after Democrats attacked the sales tax.
And the politics of Cain’s plan is extremely problematic. Michael Dennehy, a longtime New Hampshire GOP political consultant, told the Washington Times, “It is such an overwhelming change that there is so much that you can attack someone on, saying these people are going to suffer as a result.” He suggested that the loss of the home mortgage deduction would be especially painful for both home owners and the housing industry. At a time of depressed housing sales, others question whether this is the time for such a plan.
But none of the criticism seems to dampen Cain’s enthusiasm for his tax plan, as he talks it up at every stop on the campaign trail and in every interview he gives to the press. He’s right when he says the plan is well received by the voters. Whether that support can translate into political capital to get the measure passed in Congress is another question altogether.
A few of his other proposals have caused unease in some conservative quarters as well. On Saturday, during two stump speeches in Tennessee, Cain outlined his plan for an electrified border fence with a sign in English that would say, “It will kill you – warning.” The candidate appeared on Meet the Press the next day and said he was “joking.” But the video shows otherwise, including the crowd reaction of enthusiastic applause rather than laughter. If the candidate was joking about the death of illegal immigrants, it shows just how much he has to learn about the boundaries of campaign rhetoric and the sense of humor of the national press.
How Cain handles the traps and pitfalls that the media always set for conservatives will go a long way in determining his viability. He will get a taste of it on Tuesday night at the next Republican debate. Not only the moderators, but other candidates will almost certainly attack his tax plan, and perhaps some other issues that the Georgia businessman has not been as knowledgeable on as he should be.
He has a steep learning curve, and the challenges facing him are daunting. His biggest problem is time. The clock is ticking toward the first contests in the 2012 Republican presidential race and Herman Cain has a lot of catching up to do.