The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Flavor of Nuance

Cain versus Romney on Boldness, Simplicity

Mitt Romney said something in last week’s GOP debate that I liked very much. Romney, of course, is the candidate many Republican voters seem to agree has the experience and competence to be President but around whom the hard-right core cannot bring itself to coalesce. They doubt the authenticity of his conservative credentials. It is not Romney’s head that gives them trouble nor even his Mormon soul (saving some Evangelical Christians); it is his heart and gut.

As a result, other Republican hopefuls keep generating all the attention, at least temporarily. First, Michele Bachman raised Tea Party hopes high but simply seemed to wither away into irrelevance. Next, Newt Gingrich self-destructed before he could even get started. Then, Rick Perry exploded onto the scene, leapfrogging over Romney in the polls. He too quickly faded under media scrutiny and attacks from his rivals.

Hermain Cain (left) holds forth as
Mitt Romney (right) listens at the
GOP debate in New Hampshire
The new aspiring champion for the far right is former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, Herman Cain. Always appreciated for his bluntness and non-political background, Cain seemed on the verge of implosion after he criticized Perry for frequenting a Texas hunting camp with a racially “insensitive” appellation.

However, Perry’s fading reputation and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision not to run appears to have driven conservatives into Cain’s arms. First, a PPP poll showed Cain leading Romney in Iowa, thirty percent to twenty-two percent. Then a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll placed Cain atop the GOP field, with twenty-seven percent, as compared to twenty-three percent for Romney and a dismal sixteen percent for Perry. Finally, an IBOPE Zogby poll declared Cain with an astonishing twenty point lead over Romney.

Among Republican voters responding to the Zogby poll, thirty-eight percent said they would vote for Cain, versus eighteen percent for Romney, if their primary were held tomorrow. The same poll shows Cain edging out Obama in the general election by a two-point margin, whereas Romney loses to Obama by a one-point margin.

Thus, the focus was all on Cain when the Republican candidates met to debate last week at Dartmouth College in Hanover New Hampshire. Much of the debate centered around Cain’s 9-9-9 plan to revive the economy and stimulate employment. And no one raised the topic more than Cain himself.

The core tenet of 9-9-9 is virtually scrapping the entire current federal tax system and replacing it with a nine percent national sales tax, nine percent corporate tax rate, and nine percent personal income tax rate. All deductions and exemption are gone. A number of economists and budget groups have criticized 9-9-9, saying it does not raise enough income and shifts the tax burden from affluent to middle and lower class payers. Cain rejects such analyses as “incorrect” because they proceed from different assumptions than his own.

Cain likes his 9-9-9- plan because it is bold. He used the word “bold” to describe it seven times during the debate. He also likes his plan because it is simple, using that term in conjunction with it on three occasions. I get the impression, listening to him, that Cain inextricably connects boldness and simplicity in his mind.

“Therein lies the difference between me, the non- politician, and all of the politicians,” he asserts. “They want to pass what they think they can get passed rather than what we need, which is a bold solution.” Much of the boldness of 9-9-9 lies in its simplicity, according to Cain. “I can explain it in a minute!”

After scrutiny of Cain’s plan throughout much of the debate, Cain used a session in which candidates could ask questions of each other to go after Romney’s plan. “The 9-9-9 plan that I have proposed is simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral,” he avowed. “My question is to Governor Romney. Can you name all fifty-nine points in your 160 page plan, and does it satisfy that criteria of being simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral?”

The implications were obvious. Cain was offering a bold and simple plan that would get things done and would be understandable by all. Romney’s plan, in contrast, would be yet another law that legislators would need to vote for without truly comprehending or possibly even fully reading. Simple = good, complex = bad. This is a message that resonates powerfully and positively with many hard right Republican voters.

In response, Romney said something I liked very much. He did not attempt to evade the question, despite its potentially damning inference with the GOP core. Instead, he replied, “Herman, I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems. And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate. And in my view, to get this economy going again, we're going to have to deal with more than just tax policy.”

As Gail Collins of the New York Times describes it, Romney then “whipped out the seven pillars of Romneyism, which support the fifty-nine points and can, therefore, be packed into one thirty second response.”

I do not mean to suggest that I think Herman Cain is stupid or naïve as a political candidate. As a new piece in The Atlantic points out, this is actually Cain’s second political race. He first ran in Georgia's 2004 Republican Senate primary. He ultimately lost that race to current Senator Johnny Isakson but he put up a surprisingly tough fight as a battling political outsider.

Stuart Stevens, a current Romney advisor who served as a consultant to Isakson in 2004 admits of Cain, “He scared the heck out of us.” Atlanta-based Republican strategist Tom Perdue concedes Cain entered that race “naive about politics” but grew much shrewder politically as a result.

I also do not mean to argue that Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is doomed to failure or Romney’s fifty-nine point plan is genius and clearly better. However, I definitely appreciate Romney’s nuanced view of tax policy and governance in general over Cain’s bold and simple approach.

Cain is correct that legislators are often wrong in settling too quickly for legislation just because it can pass and/or will not hurt them politically. On the other hand, what struggling Americans do not need right now is more easy-to-read legislation that cannot possibly pass Congress.

Maximizing simplicity is a virtue but not if done at all costs. You can explain nuclear physics sufficiently well in non-technical language to allow many workers without advanced engineering degrees to help run a nuclear power plant. However, this does not mean that nuclear physics or power plants are inherently simple. These are not areas in which unchecked boldness is desirable.

Cain asked Romney a leading question. Romney replied with a brave, thoughtful, grown-up answer. Cain counter response – “So, no, it is not simple, is what you are saying?” – would be quite the zinger on a high school junior varsity debate team but seems a little juvenile in Presidential politics.

Over the weekend, Cain finally gave in to evaluations by the Wall Street Journal and other sources by admitting, “Some people will pay more” under his plan. However, he refused to address concerns about the effects of his national sales tax when combined with similar state and local consumption taxes, arguing this was “muddying the water.”

As he attempts to avoid the fate of Bachman, Gingrich, and Perry, Cain deflects queries about himself as the latest GOP craze by joking, “No, there's a difference between the flavor of the week and Häagen-Dazs black walnut because it tastes good all the time.” The implication is that Cain is venerable black walnut. Unfortunately, ABC News did a little fact-checking and discovered Häagen-Dazs no longer makes black walnut ice cream. Cain is not the flavor of the week; he is a non-existent flavor.

Cain needs to eschew his fondness for the flavors of boldness and simplicity. While the opposite of simplicity can be (unnecessary) complication, “simple” is also the opposite of “intelligent,” “sophisticated,” “scrupulous,” and “mature.” These latter are not such bad qualities in a President. Cain’s audacity to take big bites from his political ice cream cone does carry the risk of accompanying brain freeze. More to the point, he needs to train his palate to appreciate the flavor of nuance.


run75441 said...


Tax Policy Center offers a good analysis of the 9 9 9 program offered up by "Herman." It shifts taxes from the upper 2% to the est of the household taxpayers.

TheBell said...


I saw that report and you have summarized its finding succinctly. Hopefully, this will put a very bad idea to rest once and for all. Thanks for your reply.