Reporter's Notebook

Herman Cain revisited

Right now a video of Herman Cain singing his song “Imagine there’s no pizza” to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine” is trending throughout social media.

For those who know Cain only as the presidential hopeful pushing his 9-9-9 tax plan, the video may be surprising. For those of us who have heard Cain break into song before — well, that’s just who Cain is. He can charm with a song or a speech. He can preach a message until the audience can recite it.

I imagine I’m not unlike many others who’ve been around the restaurant industry a decade or two and are following Herman Cain’s run for the White House with more than a little interest — especially this past week as he surged in the polls, debated David Gregory on “Meet the Press,” and drew headlines nationwide.

Watching all of this it dawned on me: Like his politics or not, Herman is no political chameleon, changing with the flavor of the month, as he likes to say. His ideals and convictions have remained steadfast over time — from when he led Godfather’s Pizza and the National Restaurant Association, to today as he pursues the presidency.

Remember the frog in the boiling water? That image became Cain's oft-repeated metaphor for businesses burned by the cumulative effects of government regulation during the efforts to quash President Bill Clinton’s health care reform in the early 1990s. As he pushes his pro-business agenda, he is still trying to save the frog.

Note that this is not an endorsement for Cain. I’m just taking the opportunity to weigh in on someone who described himself as a “stealth candidate” when he first considered a presidential run in 1999 and is proving to be just that now. And I imagine that the consistency and focus of his message is what many people are finding alluring. If you look at Cain through the years, no one can accuse him of changing his political stripes. He’s somewhat like the late Ted Kennedy in that you may not agree with his positions, but you know where he stands.

Cain’s consistency became clear to me while watching the Republican debate in New Hampshire last week as he was touting his 9-9-9 tax plan. While critics say details on the plan are sorely lacking, the gist is that businesses and income would be taxed at a rate of 9 percent and a new national sales tax of 9 percent would be levied. Cain pushed a similar package as one of the 14 members on the late Jack Kemp’s tax reform commission in the mid-1990s.

I attended one of the commission’s eight public hearings with Cain in 1995 and interviewed him when the commission’s report was released in early 1996. That report called for a “single, low tax rate,” which Kemp said should be no more than 20 percent. It also called for an end to capital gains taxes, estate taxes and payroll taxes. Critics called that report short on details, too, but Cain explained that the commission decided to focus on establishing guiding principles for tax reform.

Here is an excerpt from that interview, with Cain explaining the Kemp Commission’s guiding principles. Anyone watching Cain in the hot seat now — and pundits are predicting that’s where he will be tonight during the Republican debate in Las Vegas — will recognize these sentiments:

“No. 1 is to encourage economic development. The current code discourages it. The more you work, the more you're penalized. You shouldn't be penalized for success. Pretty soon we'll all fail.

“The second is simplicity. The amount of money spent to comply with the code and comply with the law is horrendous. Several studies estimated that it costs $200 billion on the part of individuals and businesses just to file and comply with the income tax code. And we still don't get it right.

“The third is fairness. Who said it was fair that if you make twice as much as your neighbor, you pay three times as much in income taxes? We believe that everybody should pay the same percentage, and as a result, you will pay a proportionate larger amount of dollars based on your success.

“The fourth is neutrality between savings and consumption. Tax income once. If you go out and earn your money and pay taxes on your income and spend all of your money, then you don't have any more. If you save some of it and it earns some interest, you get penalized for saving it by having to pay some more taxes. Under that provision it says that if you want to avoid paying additional taxes, don't save, which is stupid. ...If a company pays a tax on a gain, why make the stockholder pay it again? [Critics] see it as a tax break for the rich, but that's an out-and-out distortion. It has been taxed. We're not saying don't tax it at all; we're saying tax it once.

“No. 5 is visibility. We believe that a new tax structure should be a system every working person can understand. And when every working person can understand what they are paying for government, the bureaucrats can't pull the wool over our eyes by manipulating the tax code the way they have done for the last 87 years.”

Interestingly, in the same interview, Cain said that working on the Kemp commission heightened his respect for Jack Kemp’s leadership and dampened his desire for public office.

“There is a direct relationship between the effort you put in and what you get out in business. Successful businesses over time can retain 3 percent or better of sales.

“In government for every dollar of effort you get 0.00001 return. That's the magnitude I'm talking about ... I don't have the patience at this point in my life to realize that return.”

While his political aspirations may have changed in 15 years, his ideals have not. Like him or leave him, he is unwaveringly committed to saving the frog.

Contact Robin Lee Allen at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @RobinLeeAllen

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