Reality Check: The Cain Train Is Going to Wreck

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Jim Cole / AP

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain responds to a question during a Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Oct. 11, 2011.

Herman Cain seemed to enjoy his turn auditioning for the role of Mitt Romney’s chief foil Tuesday night. Luxuriating at the center of the table thanks to surging poll numbers, he basked in the attention of his rivals as every exchange seemed to come back to his signature 9-9-9 tax plan. It’s a good thing Cain relished his moment in the spotlight, because it’s almost certainly downhill from here.

The pizza magnate’s ascension has been the product of his well-honed outsider’s shtick, his stirring personal story and his charisma. It’s a package that resonates with Tea Party activists who are searching for a Romney alternative. “Black walnut isn’t a flavor of the week,” he declared. But the attributes that lend power to his candidacy–including his unwillingness to play by, or even pay attention to, Washington’s rules–will almost certainly derail his chances of winning the GOP nomination.

Take, for example, Cain’s ballyhooed 9-9-9 plan, the centerpiece of an economic platform that bears scrutiny not least because his chief executive credential is his stint as a corporate CEO. Cain’s idea is to simply tear up the federal tax system and replace it with a 9% sales tax, a 9% flat tax and a 9% corporate tax, while forgiving taxes incurred by repatriation. Cain claims the plan is revenue-neutral, an assertion that seems dubious, but which is hard to check because he hasn’t released the details. Either way, it is has no shot of passing Congress. Its inclusion of a sales tax won’t wash with many Republicans, who suspect Democrats would use it to turn the U.S. into Europe (and who are already leery of Cain-sian economics because of his backing of TARP, an original sin on the right.)

Even if enacted, the 9-9-9 fantasy is a particularly bad one. Bruce Bartlett, an economic adviser in the Bush 41 and Reagan Administrations, eviscerated its tenets on Tuesday in a post on the New York Times‘ Economix blog. “At a minimum, the Cain plan is a distributional monstrosity. The poor would pay more while the rich would have their taxes cut, with no guarantee that economic growth will increase and good reason to believe that the budget deficit will increase,” Bartlett wrote. “Even allowing for the poorly thought through promises routinely made on the campaign trail, Mr. Cain’s tax plan stands out as exceptionally ill conceived.”

This shouldn’t be surprising. Cain’s confidence is an asset, but the flip side is that he has showed little interest in soliciting others’ ideas. Asked Tuesday who he has enlisted as economic advisers, he could name only one, in addition to “the American people,” a Cleveland wealth-management adviser named Rich Lowrie, a trained accounted who’s also sat on the board of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded Tea Party organizing outfit. Cain’s Platonic ideal of a Fed chairman is Alan Greenspan, the “maestro” who presided over Cain’s own tenure at the Kansas Federal Reserve — and whose slavish devotion to deregulation, which Greenspan has since disavowed as “wrong,” are among the causes of the country’s current fiscal hardship. Nor is economics the only critical area where Cain is content to rely on his existing stock of knowledge. He’s evinced no appetite for burnishing his knowledge of foreign affairs, dismissing reporters’ queries about international entanglements as meaningless quiz-show traps. “When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m going to say you know, I don’t know,” Cain said recently. “Do you know?”

Cain has made himself a hero of the Tea Party by bucking Washington’s expectations in this way. But all the love seems to have instilled the delusion that America’s weariness with politics as usual releases him from the usual rigors of campaigning. His political organization and campaign coffers are but a shell of his rivals’, and he’s actually losing staff. His soaring polls coincide with his detour from the campaign in order to promote a book. Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans may love the Herminator, but they still require candidates to show up.

Through it all, Cain seems content to wage the primary battle on the strength of his own considerable charm–his comments about Muslims and disdain for the poor notwithstanding–and his faith that America’s complex problems require simple, uncluttered solutions. Nowhere was this clearer than in the candidate qua candidate segment of Tuesday’s debate. Earlier in the day, Cain promised to take the fight to Romney. “I’m going after Romney,” he said. “I have a very penetrating question for him.” That pre-cooked hardball was whether Romney could name all 59 points of the lengthy economic policy plan he released to the public. Romney’s answer revealed the gap between the candidates. “Herman, I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems,” Romney said. “And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.”

You can win the hearts of the Tea Party with sloganeering. But pabulum about common-sense solutions won’t be enough to singularly carry Cain through a campaign. “So, it is not simple, is what you are saying?” Cain pressed Romney. If fixing America’s books were simple, it could be done around the proverbial kitchen table everyone keeps yammering about. It isn’t. Cain’s determination to pretend otherwise is one of the main reasons his campaign is likely to repeat the parabola traced by the likes of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, fellow sensations who started off strong but have faded once voters took a longer look.