NATCHITOCHES, La., October 13, 2011—Herman Cain leads Mitt Romney by 34-28 percent among Florida GOP voters. He narrowly leads Romney by 26-25 percent in South Carolina. Nationally, the two are tied in the lead of the GOP pack at 29 percent. Caine’s move to the lead is bizarre, but not hard to explain. The explanation is Romney.
Cain would be out of the running but for Romney’s odd inability to cement his status as front runner. “Odd” may be the wrong word; at one level it’s perfectly clear. The GOP doesn’t love him. He’s a man of many virtues, but red-meat conservatism isn’t among them. The individual mandate in his Massachusetts health reform is anathema, he thinks the TARP was necessary, and voters doubt he wants to abolish the Fed.
We can politely ignore his religion, but the religious right will not.
The Republican front-runner-du-jour syndrome is a response to Romney. It’s happening not because there are no really viable candidates in the GOP, but because there are, and the most viable among them is Romney.
Romney is the default front-runner, the logical choice to face Obama, but the GOP is in no mood for logic and desperately wants someone else. That desire has sometimes deranged GOP activists, as in their weird flirtation with Donald Trump. Trump’s only clear virtue is that he’s not Romney. Michelle Bachmann had a brief shot before Rick Perry was designated the GOP savior. Perry was a huge disappointment, so GOP operatives told themselves of Chris Christie, “his lips are saying “no, no, no,” but his heart is saying “yes!”
The theme of the year has been, “anyone but Mitt.”
So now the non-Mitt is Cain. It might yet again be Perry. A real oddity in this is that all these exciting non-Mitts - Trump, Perry, Christie and Cain - have been in their way as dubiously conservative as Romney.
Trump’s politics defy the normal conservative-liberal dichotomy. He rang a loud conservative gong with his demand that President Obama produce the birth certificate, but otherwise his politics are an incoherent mess.
Perry’s initial popularity with Tea Party Republicans is indicative of how badly Romney upsets them. They need only have phoned Tea Party headquarters in Texas to learn about Perry’s stand on HPV vaccinations, immigration and the “Texas DREAM Act.” They might have remembered his support of Al Gore and learned just how thin his popularity is in Texas. But so distraught were they with the threat of Romney that they threw themselves at Perry with eyes wide shut.
Christie sensibly stayed out of the race, but until he did, he excited more passion than anyone actually running. He’s shown some flair for fighting public employee unions, but in many ways he’s just an earthier, less Mormon version of Romney. His prompt endorsement of Romney underlined that fact and was no surprise at all.
So now the GOP is casting hopeful eyes at Cain, a political novice whose performance until Florida was lackluster. His 9-9-9 tax proposal was front and center in New Hampshire, but aside from the specificity of those numbers, it’s remarkably short on specifics. Cain’s “lead economist” is an accountant, so the lack of economic details isn’t a surprise, but the plan is also political nonsense: It calls for three major overhauls in the tax code (a staggering political improbability) to eventually replace income taxes with a national sales tax. Revenue estimates on the plan vary from $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion, and its impact on taxpayers is murky. It appears that for most people it will result in tax increases, which means it’s sure to run afoul of Grover Norquist.
Even less promising is Cain’s time at the Kansas City Fed. Ron Paul’s supporters are already threatening to vote for him in November, 2012, no matter who the party’s nominee happens to be. If they can’t love Romney, what must they feel for a man who worked at the Fed?
If any other candidate had Mitt Romney’s strengths last spring, that candidate would be the presumptive nominee by now. The odds still favor Romney, though GOP desperation to see anyone and everyone else as front-runner material doesn’t bode well for exciting the GOP grass roots. But should he win the nomination, Romney has some reasons for optimism.
First, he isn’t Obama. Even some religious bigots like Robert Jeffress have said they think Romney is a decent man, and they’d rather vote for a decent non-Christian (as they consider him) than Obama. If the right really wants Obama gone, they’ll muster up a little enthusiasm for whomever the Republican nominee is.
(Ron Paul’s supporters don’t count, of course. They’re neither Republican nor conservative, and they’d rather go up in flames with pure hands and hearts than play politics.)
Second, his religion may not be the deal killer for evangelical voters that many think it is. Romney’s theology may differ from theirs in ways they consider profound, but Mormon values are so close to theirs as to be indistinguishable. And while large minorities in his party found Kennedy’s Catholicism an impossible hurdle in 1960, many found it less so once they were in the voting booth.
Third is the economy. Four years ago, Iowa voters cared more about social issues than economic issues. Since then we’ve been mired in the worst economy since the Great Depression. The economy is seen as Romney’s strong suit, and there’s nothing like stagnant wages and unemployment to make people put economic issues ahead of gays, guns and abortion. A whisper campaign like Huckabee’s won’t work as well now as it did in 2008.
Cain is an intelligent and forceful man who, if nominated, will give Obama a run for his money. He probably won’t be, and that may be too bad. But until the “tin man” finds his heart, GOP voters will flirt with anyone who shows them the passion they’re looking for, and for now that’s Herman Cain.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the French professor, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He thinks that Romney has a heart, but he fears it may be in a blind trust until the election is over. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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