In the annals of Republican irrationality, nothing tops the meteoric rise of Herman Cain. This is the party that rebukes Barack Obama for his lack of governing experience – yet now, according to the newly released NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, it has conferred front-runner status on a guy who hasn’t served in government for so much as a single day, a guy who is well schooled in pepperoni but sorely lacking on the fundamentals of policy.But Cain’s newbie non-credentials are precisely the source of his soaring appeal. He has become the convenient drop zone for all those disgruntled, Romney-averse Republicans who keep looking for a place to land. This doesn’t mean that Cain can win the nomination, of course; the GOP hasn’t picked a non-politician since Dwight Eisenhower, and it did so in 1952 only because Ike achieved something during World War II that was a tad more impressive than making a pile in the pizza biz. Still, there’s no denying that Cain is having his Moment – not just because he’s an outsider at a time when the Republican base is especially wary of career insiders, but, far more importantly, because he speaks in simplicities and he doesn’t know all that much.Seriously, those are valuable assets. The tea partyers yearn for simple answers, and Cain’s “9-9-9” catechism fits the bill. How easy it all sounds, via endless repetition: Scrap the current federal tax code. Replace it with a 9 percent income tax, a 9 percent business tax, and a 9 percent national sales tax. Better yet, Cain didn’t get the idea from some smarty-pants, fat-resume Ivy League economist in evil Washington, D.C.; quite the contrary, he got the idea from an investment adviser who works for Wells Fargo in Pepper Pike, Ohio, out there in real America. The whole tableau oozes populism.The beauty of it is that “9-9-9” sticks in the memory, like the snappy hook in a hit pop song. The Republican voters who dig the slogan seem ill-inclined to drill down to the details; hence the current Cain boomlet. At some point they may realize they’re being played for suckers, and that would signal the end of the boomlet – but not now, not just yet. The truth will take time to penetrate. The truth, as already ferreted out by most economists, is that Cain’s 9-9-9 would impose new tax burdens on low-income and middle-income Americans. Which is why a number of prominent conservative organs – including FreedomWorks, the Cato Institute, Americans for Tax Reform (home of Grover Norquist’s never-raise-taxes pledge), and the Wall Street Journal editorial board – have already begun taking their whacks at it. The Republican debate audiences love it when Cain intones the three numbers; he is just so entertaining. But his listeners apparently have yet to think through the implications of what he’s proposing. For instance, his national sales tax – which would supposedly make up for his cuts in federal income tax revenue – would be slapped on top of all existing state and local sales taxes. Rick Santorum nailed it the other night, at the Republican debate, when he asked the New Hampshire audience (New Hampshire being a famously tax-averse state) whether it would be willing to pay a national sales tax; the resulting silence said it all. Indeed, Cain’s national levy would shift the tax burden to middle- and lower-income Americans, who, by definition, spend more of their income than the people in the higher brackets do. All told, some analysts believe Cain would nearly double the taxes paid by the middle class.Granted, Cain can probably stay aloft for awhile if only because he’s such an unconventional brand. He takes pride in boasting of what he doesn’t know, as if knowledge was a bad thing; this is potentially appealing, at least to voters who don’t know much either, and who suspect that knowing things is a symptom of smarty-pants disease. They probably loved it the other day when Cain told an interviewer that he was poised to defy the brainy inquisitors: “When they ask me who’s the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m going to say, ‘You know, I don’t know.'”And they already love it when Cain says things that have no relation to factual reality, on issues where they share the same aversion to factual reality. At a recent debate, for instance, Cain, a cancer survivor, insisted that “I would be dead under ObamaCare.” Here’s how he explained that one:”From March 2006 all the way to the end of 2006, for that number of months, I was able to get the necessary CAT scan tests, go to the necessary doctors, get a second opinion, get chemotherapy, go get surgery, recuperate from surgery, get more chemotherapy in a span of nine months. If we had been under ObamaCare and a bureaucrat was trying to tell me when I could get that CAT scan, that would have delayed my treatment. My surgeons and doctors have told me that because I was able get the treatment as fast as I could, based upon my timetable and not the government’s timetable that’s what saved my life, because I only had a 30 percent chance of survival. And now I’m here five years cancer free, because I could do it on my timetable and not a bureaucrat’s timetable.””Yayy,” yelled the audience, which willfully swallowed Cain’s lie about the health care reform law. There he was, insisting that the law will require doctors to confer with Washington bureaucrats before proceeding with treatment – and his listeners actually bought it. They bought it because they want to believe it, and Cain is a smart motivational speaker who can effectively tap what his listeners want to believe.Cain’s Trump-like bubble will probably burst at some point, once the simplicities of 9-9-9 are exposed; as Mitt Romney told him on Tuesday night, in a well-phrased remark, “Simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.” But this is ultimately not about Cain at all; this is about the sizable slice of the Republican primary electorate that seems determined to dwell in delusion. Cain is their current vehicle, and he’ll cruise along until the gas runs out.
Here’s my Thursday newspaper column, where I defend Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1