IF HERMAN Cain achieves nothing else, he has disproved the old maxim, “Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line.’’ The next six months may well be a tedious slog toward the inevitable coronation of Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential nominee. But on Monday night, most of the 1,200 conservatives gathered at a Republican Party fundraiser that Cain headlined were as smitten with the former pizza magnate, and new front-runner, as the dreamiest liberal ever was with Howard Dean or Barack Obama.
Cain is reveling in his unexpected elevation. He interrupted his keynote speech so that an aide could scramble onto the stage and deliver a slip of paper with the latest Rasmussen poll results, which he then proudly shared with the audience: They show him leading Barack Obama (narrowly) in a head-to-head matchup. He is the only candidate who can boast this distinction, a fact he also pointed out to the crowd.
Beyond the blustery showmanship, the basis of Cain’s appeal is his 9-9-9 plan to replace most of the US tax code. Most economists on the right and left seem to agree that 9-9-9 is unworkable. Liberals don’t like how it tilts the burden of taxation toward the poor and middle class, while easing it for the rich. Many conservatives object to its call for a new national sales tax. A recent analysis of the plan by a University of Southern California law professor throbs with the kind of hostility one rarely sees applied to examinations of federal tax policy: “Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 Plan is a terrific example of fiscal hocus pocus. It is presented as a low-tax panacea, but it actually would raise the tax bills of many Americans very substantially.’’
Regardless of all this, 9-9-9 has made Cain a sudden Republican superstar, one who has eclipsed much bigger names, including Texas Governor Rick Perry. His biggest applause lines on Monday came, surprisingly, as he rattled off the plan’s provisions: a 9 percent individual flat tax, a 9 percent corporate flat tax, and a 9 percent national sales tax. Had he done for pizza what he’s doing right now for right-wing, utopian overhauls of the tax code, his reputation in corporate America would loom much larger than it does.
If Cain’s tax plan is dodgy and his qualificatins for the presidency thin, then how has he managed to outshine his Republican challengers? The best answer is that 9-9-9 has filled a vacuum. While the other candidates attack each other mercilessly and compete in their denunciations of President Obama, only Cain has offered an exciting new idea (however flawed it may be). Judging from the crowd’s response to his proposal, it’s hard not to conclude that there’s a hunger among conservatives for more such ideas that’s not being satisfied.
Cain seems to understand this and delights in playing the role of the outsider-provocateur. “As you probably saw in the last debate,’’ he told the audience, “a lot of my opponents came after me. That’s what you do when you don’t have your own plan.’’
And sure enough, they came after him again during Tuesday night’s debate in Las Vegas, and may finally have taken some of the gloss off of his candidacy. For the first time, he had real difficulty defending the plan, and seemed to fade in a way that he had not in earlier debates. As a bona fide top-tier candidate, Cain can look forward to much more scrutiny and many further attacks.
But he may have more staying power than Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, each of whom shot to the front of the pack, only to fade. This is because, unlike those candidates, Cain has something genuinely new to offer, and does so with undeniable flair.
One measure of his impact came on Wednesday, when Perry, struggling to revive his campaign, announced that he, too, would propose a flat tax.
Cain still looks like a real long shot. But if his recent success nudges his party to be a little more likable and put forward new ideas, he’ll have changed the race more than anyone would have guessed.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. His column appears regularly in the Globe.