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The Significance of Herman Cain

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Oct 24, 2011

The Republican presidential field has been deeply unsettled as one candidate after the other moves forward to challenge Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Michelle Bachmann charged forward only to fall back in the pro-Perry wave. Perry stumbled badly in his first debates and lost points in the polls. As of this writing, the African-American business executive and media personality Herman Cain has surged into contention.

Cain's jump into the front rank of contenders is surprising. He has not held a political office, and he lost his contest for the Republican senatorial nomination in Georgia in 2004. The man who was something of a novelty candidate with an interesting tax plan has suddenly become the conservative favorite of the moment.

The first thing that must be said of Cain's rise is that it is another counterfactual to the meme spread by some on the left that the tea party is racist in its sympathies. Romney is supported by the old GOP establishment of the Bush family. Cain's campaign is powered by tea party support. If anything, his color improves his appeal to conservative voters tired of being slandered as retrograde racists. Racism can only fairly be charged against the tea party if being in favor of smaller government is tantamount to racism. It is not.

More important than his race are his personality and his tax plan. Cain is immensely likeable. His positive and humorous disposition serves him well in debates, in which some candidates come off as brittle and easily offended. This is a man who has done well, believes in the values that sustained him, and is eager to share his vision of success with the public. He comes across as confident, cheerful and non-threatening, very much like Ronald Reagan.

By now, virtually every political observer has heard Cain extol the virtues of his 9-9-9 tax plan with its components of taxation aimed at personal income, corporate profits and consumption. He is not the first candidate to get a lot of attention for an innovative approach to tax reform. Steve Forbes did it in 1996 with a flat tax. Mike Huckabee rode the consumption-based Fair Tax in 2008.

As Cain's standing has increased, so, too, has the scrutiny of his plan. While the details are vulnerable to criticism and will cost him support as they becomes well-known, he is differently situated than past tax reformers. The intractability of huge deficits and class-warfare clashes has frozen the debate over paying down the debt.

Most policy analysts, including the president's expert panel, realize that fundamental tax reform, rather than monkeying with the progressivity of rates, offers the best hope for breaking the logjam. That means broadening the tax base, eliminating deductions and loopholes and reducing the complexity of the system. Cain is the candidate who has most doggedly stuck to that theme.

The question for Cain is whether he will be able to transition from discussing the specifics of his plan to a broader discussion of fundamental tax reform. If he is able to do that, he will be able to remain in the front ranking. And whether he wins or not, he will have done our republic a favor by drawing attention to a real priority rather than a flashy debating point.

This column originally appeared in the October 21st edition of The Jackson Sun