Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why I Want Herman Cain In The Mix (#CPAC11)

I don’t necessarily think Herman Cain should be the Republican nominee for President, but part of me wants to see him do well because he brings unique attributes to the contest that could be constructive to our politics.

Cain’s CPAC address showed off his ability to captivate a crowd, but everybody who is the least bit familiar with Herman Cain already knew he could do that in his sleep.  While Cain chose not to deliver policy specifics to the CPAC/Republican base audience, he is more than capable of doing so, even when sparring against the wonkish Bill Clinton.  Cain could wipe the floor with Obama in a policy debate, and would be a driving intellectual force in any Republican primary field.  The GOP needs candidates who can communication the issues of the day in persuasive and engaging language without demagoguery or sacrificing accuracy. Cain can do that.

Cain also represents the rise of the non-politician expert, the self-made man.  In his CPAC speech, he told the audience that both of his parents walked off the farm as young adults with little more than the clothes on their backs. Cain’s biography is the American Dream on steroids, made all the poignant by his race and the era in which he earned his success.  Perhaps the jump from the business world to the political world ought to be a little easier than it is.  What would the landscape look like had Cain won his 2004 Senate bid?

I do have some substantive concerns about Cain. He holds a few positions that are controversial even inside the Republican Party.  

He favors the “Fair Tax” plan – replacing the income tax with a consumption tax, modified by a “pre-bate” intended to help the poor.  The Fair Tax plan has several problems. (1) Despite the desire to eliminate the IRS, the plan still requires a heavy enforcement presence. (2) The plan is so radically different from our current tax structure that implementation is very unlikely.  And (3) it is easy for opponents of the plan to demagogue the issue by pointing out that it raises taxes on all goods (such as food, clothing, and fuel) without pointing out the benefits of the plan (which are the elimination of the income tax, the pre-bate, and greater taxation of the shadow economy).

Cain is a “one exception” pro-lifer.  Many Republicans, including the vaunted Ronald Reagan, have been against abortion with the exceptions of rape, incest, and protecting the life of the mother.  Cain’s singular exception for the mother’s life may be philosophically sound, but would face significant opposition in a general election.  America does not agree with this formulation.

Mr. Cain’s support of the gold standard may also raise some eyebrows.

If Herman Cain wishes to be seen as a serious candidate, he will need to adjust his tone for a general audience instead of a radio talk show audience.  He will need to rely less on cutesy catch-phrases such as “the un-fairness doctrine” and “health care deform” that are perfect for talk radio or CPAC, but are inappropriate for general debate.  He will need to avoid saying that liberals are “trying to destroy America”, even if he believes it, and even if they arguably are, because this is not the type of rhetoric that attracts swing voters.  

In his defense, it must be said that hyper-intensity is a high quality problem.  It should be easier for Cain to “dial it down” that it will be for a Mitch Daniels or a Tim Pawlenty to dial it up.  (Please note that intensity is a different concept than ideology. As a general matter, I am not asking anybody to be grossly more or less conservative.)

There’s a lot to like about Herman Cain, and America would benefit from seeing more from him.  If the election came down to Cain versus Obama, I would proudly and unhesitatingly vote for Cain.  I cannot say I would be so proud to vote for some of the other potential Republican candidates.  Though I do not expect him to win the nomination, having Cain “in the mix” would ensure a debate that is both issue-based and engaging.  Cain can bring people to our side, and I encourage him in that effort.

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