The Cain-Gingrich Debate


On Saturday night, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich sat down for what was billed as a “Lincoln-Douglas style debate,” hosted by the Texas Patriots PAC and covered by CSPAN.  The candidates would be given ample time to respond in depth to questions about reform of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

As it turned out, Cain and Gingrich had substantially fewer disagreements than Lincoln and Douglas did.  In fact, they had only minor differences of opinion on how to go about implementing their reforms.  Both were firmly in agreement on the importance of block-granting Medicaid funds to the states, abolishing ObamaCare in favor of market-based health care reforms, and providing a way for younger workers to opt out of Social Security and into privately owned accounts.  Cain, of course, believes Social Security privatization will require his 999 Plan as a runway in order to achieve takeoff, as the 999 Plan does away with payroll taxes.

Neither candidate began a response with an express or implied cry of “You’re wrong!” or engage in the sort of verbal frenzy that ends with heated accusations about the sinister forces providing Mitt Romney with lawn care services.  These two were so collegial that I couldn’t help thinking they’d look great on a ticket together.  Cain had the most riotously funny line of the evening when, given an opportunity to ask a single question of his opponent, he thought for a moment and inquired: “If you were Vice President of the United States, what would you want the President to assign you to do first?”

There might not have been any strenuous disagreements between Cain and Gingrich, but there was a significant contrast in style.  Gingrich was far better prepared with facts, policy specifics, and knowledge of political history.  Cain actually took a mulligan when presented with a question about defined benefit contributions, asking Gingrich to go first while he put his own thoughts together.

Gingrich cheerfully obliged, continuing his policy of competing without trying to destroy the other GOP candidates.  At the Reagan Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa last night, which Cain did not attend, Gingrich made a terrific statement: “I am here with very fine competitors, but no opponents.  We only have one opponent, and that’s Barack Obama.”  He conducted himself in a similar manner during his appearance with Cain in Texas.

Gingrich always rolls into a speech or debate with a couple of Big Ideas he wants to emphasize, plus a pile of more specific proposals he tosses out like Halloween candy.  For example, in the midst of discussing health-care reform, he floated the idea that doctors could be given tax credit for providing properly-documented charity services, as a far more efficient method of ensuring health care for the poor than the current bureaucratic nightmare, and the even greater ObamaCare horrors to come.

The most strongly emphasized Big Idea from Gingrich tonight was the fallacy of allowing Big Government to measure its own performance, and predict the future costs and benefits of tax and spending policies, when its predictions of cost and benefit have never come anywhere near reality.  (Cain buttressed this point by relating the amazing history of Medicare, originally sold to the public with a price tag of $6 billion, and projected to cost no more than $12 billion by 1990.  The actual cost of the program in 1990 was $109 billion.)

Gingrich stressed the importance of getting away from the static analysis budgeting methods employed by the Congressional Budget Office, which he said he’d like to abolish outright.  Because these methods ignore the growth aspect of tax relief and government spending cuts, as well as the depressing effects of tax increases and government bloat, they have locked America into a death spiral towards ever-expanding government. 

Another major point from Gingrich was the absurdity of money-for-nothing welfare-state programs.  “Nobody should get something for nothing unless they have a very severe disability,” he declared.  “If you’re an able-bodied person, and you’re getting something for nothing, we’re pretty stupid for giving it to you.”  Among the tough-love proposals he suggested was attaching a mandatory training requirement to unemployment benefits.  As he noted with both acid and accuracy, people could be earning college degrees in the time they’ve been sitting around and waiting for Barack Obama to create jobs.

While both men have comparable critiques of government, Gingrich’s criticism is infused with the species of contempt that only long familiarity can breed.  Nothing the government’s endless excuses for failing to enforce immigration laws, he reflected on the way shipping companies allow their customers to track millions of moving packages with incredible ease and near-perfect accuracy… and joked that the government could therefore locate illegal aliens by sending them packages, and using the UPS or FedEx websites to track them.

Cain, on the other hand, did better with big-picture vision and inspiring oratory.  Gingrich lapses a bit too easily into Professor Newt mode, which would have been less of a problem forty years ago, when voters had longer attention spans.  Cain sometimes appears to be fumbling for the kind of details that endlessly chase each other through the Gingrich frontal lobe, eager for a chance to escape into his vocal cords… but he can really hit the high notes of inspiration and vision. 

He’s not quite the raconteur Gingrich is – people who swallowed the bitter liberal media caricature of “The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas” must be surprised to learn how funny and quotable he actually is – but Cain embodies the warmth of a Christmas Eve spent by the fireplace with a mug of hot cocoa, and connects with people so easily it’s almost hypnotic.  That’s a powerful asset for a man who wants to lead the country into a bright future of big changes.

Cain conducts himself precisely as one would expect, given his background.  He’s a top-level manager who has put together a list of programs he believes will address major problems in a large organization.  He will bring in top-flight subordinates to handle the small details.  He has a number of major programs he likes: the 999 Plan of course, but also the Chilean model of Social Security reform, and the Paul Ryan budget plan.  He said he “hasn’t found anything to disagree with” in the Ryan plan.

Cain strongly believes in the importance of moving Americans from “entitlement to empowerment.”  Block granting both money and responsibility for programs like Medicaid to the states is part of this strategy, as is the creation of a private account option for Social Security recipients.  “People spend other people’s money recklessly than they spend their own,” he observed, brilliantly condensing much of the Obama disaster into a single sentence.

Looking back on his transition from private-sector business success into the politics, Cain made the interesting observation that it’s “dangerous” for businessmen to stay out of public debates, confident they can mitigate the damage from legislation with good lobbyists somewhere down the line.  When the government becomes as large and intrusive as ours has, politics must be practiced defensively.  It’s really not possible for a high-level businessman to declare himself uninterested in the affairs of government, because the government is most certainly interested in him.

Cain is an inspirational figure, but Gingrich’s experience and mastery of the issues would be important assets in the general election, because in the teeth of an aggressively hostile media, a command of fine detail is necessary to keep an inspirational message from becoming derailed.  Where Gingrich was cordial and supportive, Obama will pounce, and the next day’s headlines will be filled with all the things Herman Cain didn’t know by heart.  Cain would really profit from the continuing support of Gingrich… or vice versa.  They really are quite a team.