The Republican presidential field is now all but set. Notables such as Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, South Dakota Senator John Thune and now New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have passed on the race. And despite the Republican electorate’s dissatisfaction with the field (less than before by far) they are certainly willing to indicate support for the candidate of the hour. Polls are beginning to show the race is becoming more than a two-man affair between Romney and Perry. Romney has been slow and steady, Perry came out with a bang and has been dragged back down to Earth, and now Newt Gingrich (I don’t like right-wing social engineering) and Herman Cain are moving up in the polls. But it is Herman Cain’s recent rise that is so surprising considering what he brings to the table.
Herman Cain, an African-American, is not a traditional GOP candidate. He is not skilled oratorical and he lacks extensive knowledge of foreign policy or domestic policy. What he does bring to the table is an interesting 9-9-9 tax reform plan and an authenticity that few of the candidates who run in political circles can match. Recent statewide polling from Democratic leaning PPP finds Cain ahead or tied in four states. And new national polls show Cain tied in second place with Perry. Romney has retaken the lead of the pack however.
But with star-power and the media getting the sense Cain can win he will face new issues. Cain had the luxury of starting his rise in Florida due to the fact Perry and Romney were attacking each other with wild abandon. Meanwhile, all the other candidates piled on the two, leaving Cain to discuss vague policy and deal in platitudes. It sure seems to sound better to say reform the tax code with something as simple as 9-9-9 but not have to defend it. This resulted in Cain’s Florida Straw Poll victory and his surge in the polls.
But on specific policies (or lack of) Cain is vulnerable. Especially his 9-9-9 plan. Candidates like Romney and Huntsman have come out with elaborate 100 point plans to solve our economic woes. Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich and Santorum all want to cut regulations and reduce taxes, yet have not come out with specific policy ideas. Ron Paul, true to his libertarian mindset, wants the government out of almost every facet of our lives (not a bad idea really). But Cain has come out with something incredibly dramatic, a simple plan to reform the tax code.
At its essence the 9-9-9 plan would call for a 9% income flat tax on everybody regardless of income level. The corporate tax rate would be dropped from 35% to 9%. And finally, a 9% national sales tax would be implemented. Many conservatives and Republicans are unlikely to object to dropping the corporate and income tax rates. But it is the national sales tax that Cain must defend to the right. On the right many are likely to view it as setting a dangerous precedent for having a national sales tax and then inevitably see income tax rates rise later on. Also, the income flat tax is based on eliminating all or almost all federal tax reductions and it is unclear whether this would actually bring in more revenue or even drop overall tax rates for Americans. And the feasibility of passing it if Cain became president is almost non-existent. I suspect many Republicans would be hesitant to implement this change and lose the gains they have made among younger poor and middle-income whites.
But specific policies are not Cain’s only problem. It is his lack of ideas on other issues that are likely to hurt him. On foreign policy Cain has offered nothing substantive. He continues to simply echo the “I will listen to the generals” idea. That is not necessarily bad but when voters are looking for somebody they think is qualified on foreign policy that answer will not cut it. On immigration Cain has had his share of criticizing Governor Rick Perry’s stance on illegals and in-state tuition. But he has also not offered a solution.
Moving beyond policy three other obstacles stand out, fundraising, the election calendar and media scrutiny. On fundraising Cain has yet to report his 3rd quarter fundraising report but it is likely to seriously lag behind Romney and Perry. This is understandable considering his rise has come only recently but it also means that Cain will not be able to build the infrastructure to turn out and reach conservative voters in early voting states. This ties in with his second problem. The election calendar. Florida’s decision to bump up their primary to the 31st of January has forced Iowa, NH, SC and Nevada to move up their primaries and caucuses. Nobody has polled these states in a while so it is hard to know whether Cain is gaining traction in these states. But time is of the essence. Now Cain has even less time to build up support and infrastructure in these states. Cain has stated his strategy is to stay alive until Florida, but we saw how well that turned out for Rudy Giuliani in 2008.
Finally, Cain will face increasing media scrutiny. His time-serving the Fed will come out (supporters of Ron Paul will hate this), as will some decisions he made as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza that might drive some of his supporters away. Furthermore, his lack of ideas on foreign policy will be highlighted by the media as will questionable statements is undoubtedly sure to make. Still for all the obstacles facing Herman Cain he has made a dramatic rise in so short a time. Whether it lasts and whether he is really for primetime remains to be seen.