Steve Chapman

For a while during Tuesday's Republican debate, it wasn't clear if Herman Cain was running for president of the United States or the Fruit Vendors Association. Responding to a criticism of his "9-9-9" tax plan, Cain said, "This is an example of mixing apples and oranges. The state tax is an apple. We are replacing the current tax code with oranges."

When more criticisms came, he again took refuge in the produce aisle. Cain was not taking a position on apples, but he was stoutly in favor of oranges, and he was adamant that they should never be placed in the same bag.

What the exchanges revealed is that Cain lacks a flair for metaphor as well as a working grasp of his own platform. He emphatically denied the charge that his 9 percent business levy would function as a value-added tax. But the analysis commissioned by his own campaign, which he urged everyone to read, takes a somewhat different view.

"Each business would pay tax on gross receipts less payments to other businesses," it explains. "Allowing the subtraction of payments for intermediate goods yields the value added by the company. Subtracting investment as well yields a subtraction method (SET ITAL) value-added tax (END ITAL) (emphasis added)."

Obviously, the Herminator has managed to avoid contact with the most basic facts about his own tax plan. He describes it in terms that even his own advisers reject. And he exhibits no curiosity about what it contains. Cain brings to mind basketball great Charles Barkley, who complained of being misquoted -- in his autobiography.

The danger of anyone becoming president without any political experience is not just that he doesn't know many things, but that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. Cain has an additional problem: He doesn't know what he thinks.

Not that he is bashful or tentative in expressing his opinions. On the contrary, he is all blunt candor and glib certitude. The problem comes only afterward, when he has to take responsibility for what he said.

He stated that he would not appoint any Muslim to his cabinet or to the federal bench. Then he said he meant only Muslim "extremists." He said, in a tone of complete seriousness, that he would put up a fence along the Mexican border to electrocute intruders. He then claimed he was only joking.

He said he could imagine exchanging all the inmates in Guantanamo to win the release of a single American soldier. Then he claimed he "misspoke."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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