Dial 9-9-9

[The following article was originally published as the cover story for the October 17th, 2011 issue of Human Events newspaper.]

“For many businesses like mine, the cost of your [healthcare] plan is simply a cost that will cause us to eliminate jobs … With all due respect … your calculations are wrong,” Herman Cain, then CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, told President Bill Clinton in an a nationally televised town hall on healthcare reform in April of 1994, a response very similar to complaints made in town halls in 2009 against ObamaCare.

Cain, who has edged out Mitt Romney to now lead the GOP presidential race in several national polls and in some state polls in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, told HUMAN EVENTS that, after his exchange with Clinton, the business community started to read the fine print in the legislation and got active by sending letters to members of Congress.

Jack Kemp Reaches Out

While the business community was busy delving into the details of Clinton’s healthcare plan, Jack Kemp, one of the most prominent and influential conservatives of the last century, saw Cain on television and immediately wanted to learn more about the businessman who confronted Clinton.

“Jack was so impressed, his office called mine, and asked if he could come out and meet me,” Cain told me on his campaign bus before a book-signing appearance at a Northern Virginia Costco on October 7. “About a week later, Jack flew to Nebraska, we had coffee, talked for three hours. He just wanted to get to know me for three hours … We were great friends ever after.”

In the 17 years after he met Kemp, Cain would go on to successfully turn around Godfather’s Pizza and make it profitable in much the same way he did with Burger King franchises in Philadelphia, Pa. He served on several corporate boards and was chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve branch, arguably, he notes, one of the weaker Federal Reserve branches. He hosted a talk-radio show in Atlanta and survived stage-four colon cancer after doctors gave him only a 30% chance of living.

“[Kemp] was praying for me [while I was battling cancer] because he was a man of faith,” Cain said. “It was good to know that someone like Jack Kemp was in my corner.”

After Cain survived his bout with cancer, Kemp was diagnosed with cancer, which ultimately took his life in 2009.

“I was devastated,” said Cain, his voice lowering, the hurt visible in his eyes.

An Exceptional Life

In his thunderous, heartfelt stump speeches, Cain often cites former Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays, who was a mentor not only to Cain but also to many others, including Martin Luther King.

“The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal, the tragedy lies in having no goals to reach,” Cain quotes Mays as saying. “It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”

Jack Kemp, like Cain, was a man full of dreams. Relentlessly optimistic, Kemp was an evangelist for free markets and called on Republicans to get out of the boardrooms and country clubs and into the ghettos and the barrios.

Fred Malek, an influential Republican power broker who was a close friend of Kemp’s, took to his blog to write about Kemp’s legacy soon after Kemp’s passing.

“For decades, Jack urged us to go outside our electoral comfort zone and reach out to African-Americans and Latinos, because he believed they shared our values and that, by sharing the power of our ideas with more people, we could help lift millions out of poverty and into the ‘opportunity society,’ as he aptly called it,” Malek wrote. “We are not all the way there yet, but when we arrive, Jack will deserve a big share of the credit.”

Malek further wrote: “As our own party seeks new ideas and new leadership for the future, I can only hope that in doing so, we are reminded of Jack Kemp. If we are lucky and if we are smart, we will find someone who can channel his passion for conservative principle and policy, his energy, his inclusiveness and his passion that excited and inspired so many for so long.”

In many ways, Cain is that “Jack Kemp Republican,” who partly fulfills the vision Kemp had of the GOP. But Cain had led an exceptional life before the nation–and Kemp—took note of him in 1994.

He grew up in segregated Georgia (“I was po’ before I was poor,” Cain says) and went to Morehouse, where he majored in math and physics, which allowed him to become a ballistics engineer for the Navy before he entered the private sector.

The “9-9-9” Plan

Kemp once said Cain had the “voice of Othello, the looks of a football player, the English of Oxfordian quality and the courage of a lion.”

In many ways, Cain’s signature “9-9-9” economic plan, which would overhaul the entire federal tax code and replace it with a 9% tax on corporate and personal income in addition to a 9% federal sales tax, is bold and courageous for it seeks to completely shred the federal tax code that so frustrated Kemp.

Confronted with criticisms that his plan, which is a first step to the implementation of a FairTax system, is regressive, Cain told HUMAN EVENTS it is not because it would eliminate payroll taxes and taxes on used goods.

Further, Cain said his plan would create “empowerment zones,” which would designate an “area” or “zone” that would qualify for lower tax rates. Those areas would be defined by various economic parameters, which the campaign is in the process of more specifically defining before finalizing its “empowerment zone” plan.

Cain said that while Kemp spoke incessantly of enterprise zones, the tax code stood in the way of Kemp’s implementing economic reforms that economically depressed communities—whether they were urban, rural, or blue-collar—needed.

“Therein lies the beauty of 9-9-9”, Cain said. “It provides a platform [by getting rid of the tax code] to make empowerment zones very easy to define [and implement].”

Cain’s plan has also been criticized for giving Congress another stream of revenue from taxation. Cain, in response, says that it would be harder for Congress to raise taxes without public backlash when there are only three transparent taxes. Second, Cain said he will call for a two-thirds vote in the Senate to raise any taxes under his “9-9-9” plan.

Yes from Laffer and Moore

Art Laffer, the father of modern supply-side economics, told HUMAN EVENTS that “Mr. Cain’s plan is simple, transparent, neutral with respect to capital and labor, and savings and consumption, and also greatly decreases the hidden costs of tax compliance. There is no doubt that economic growth would surge upon implementation of 9-9-9”.

Conservative economist Steve Moore, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, said, “This is the most exciting, bold plan out of any of the candidates … We have a super-sized economic problem and [Cain is] coming up with super-sized solutions.”

Main Street Appeal

It is not hard to imagine that Kemp’s vision of the future of the Republican Party looked like a bustling Costco in Northern Virginia.

As I followed Cain into Costco (Costco employees told HUMAN EVENTS Cain’s book signing generated more excitement than Laura Bush’s) as he was getting ready to sign copies of his book, This Is Herman Cain! My Journey To The White House, the warehouse was teeming with Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, all of whom were united by commerce.

In fact, more so than Cain’s “9-9-9” plan and his anti-establishment rhetoric, Cain’s appeal stems mostly from his argument that he can use the problem-solving approach that he used in the small business sector, which the Obama Administration has been criticized for lacking, to transcend geography and race and turn around the American economy.

“I’m a Main Street executive,” Cain said, contrasting himself with the “Wall Street” Romney. “I’ve made the hamburgers, made pizzas, cleaned bathrooms, swept the parking lots, balanced out the cash register receipts, taken the money to the bank, and done all the things you do when you run a business hands on.”

Added Cain: “Further, when I ran the National Restaurant Association, you had to understand how to connect to hourly workers, part-time workers, restaurant managers … It represented the full spectrum of the American lifestyle and experience.”
And so does his support today.

Ricardo, from Alexandria, Va., said he liked the “simplicity” of Cain’s “9-9-9” because it breaks through all the other stuff that is out there—taxes here, loopholes there—just get [the tax system] fair and flat and easy to use.” Added Ricardo: “Just get out of the way … and that’s what Herman Cain is promising.”

Elaine Brown, from Culpeper, Va., liked that he was not a career politician.

“He is not a politician, I like that about him,” Brown said. “He likes to solve problems … I know he doesn’t have all the money, but he has the best message that the people are looking for.”

Jeff Lee, from Fairfax, Va., said he could see Cain’s appealing to a broad cross-section of Americans because “he knows what it takes for regular businesses to work” and has “had experience with people from different backgrounds” and on all rungs “of the corporate ladder.”

Added Lee: “I also like his Wall Street and corporate experience “Many politicians]are ‘top to bottom’ politicians who come from Wall Street and try to understand regular businesses “Herman is ‘bottom to top’ … He is one of us who also has learned how to deal with Wall Street.”

Patty Olsen told HUMAN EVENTS that she liked Cain’s “Main Street appeal.”

“I know he is telling the truth when he is speaking and I trust him,” Olsen said. “It’s about the economy right now and I think he [can turn it around] … he’s done it for companies in the past, and I think he can do it for America.”

As the country’s economic outlook gets more grim under the Obama Administration, much of the frustrated electorate appears to be seeking more non-politicians to offer solutions, so Cain will now have his chance under the klieg lights to convince the nearly 70% of Republicans who are not supporters of a Romney candidacy that he can be their problem-solver.

When America faced a similarly depressing economy in the lead-up to the Reagan years, it was Kemp and his Kemp-Roth bill, which lowered the confiscatory marginal tax rates, that unleashed America’s private sector and so strengthened the economy as to allow Reagan to defeat the Soviet Union without firing a bullet.

America now faces an aggressively rising China, and Cain’s solution to confronting China is very much in the spirit of Kemp.
‘We just need to outgrow China economically,” Cain says.

Kemp always said that Republicans were at their best when supporting policies that expanded the economic pie to give all Americans a larger slice, contrasting them to Democrats intent on divvying up the same size or shrinking economic pie.

When asked if it would take a business executive who once turned around a pizza chain to best expand America’s economic pie, Cain smiled and simply said, “Yes!”

Jarrett Stepman contributed to this article.