Some of the Republican candidates wanted to audition for Comedy Central the other night, aiming their one-liners at Herman Cain. But the pizza man is no joke. Cain is able, you might say. If his rivals are not taking him seriously, they should. Everyone else is.
Stand-up comedy is for professionals, and the comedy candidates, particularly Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann, showed us why. Cain was the early target for his 9-9-9 tax reform scheme; he would tax personal income at 9 percent, and enact a national income tax of 9 percent and a corporate income tax of 9 percent.
"I think it's a catchy phrase," Huntsman jibed. "In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it." Bachmann tried a little broader humor (aimed at Bible readers): "If you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it around, the devil is in the details." She meant upside down, not turned around, but we get the point.
Many economists on both right and left argue that Cain's 9-9-9 scheme wouldn't work. The rich might pay less, but the poor might pay more. Roberton Williams of the left-leaning Urban Institute argues in USA Today that "on the top end, 9 percent is a lot better deal than what people at the top are paying." He cites an Urban Institute estimate that taxpayers who make more than $1 million a year typically pay 18 percent in personal income taxes. "Going to 9 percent is going to save them half. That's nice savings. That's the income tax side."
Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation thinks it's not at all certain that a consumption-based sales tax can work "alongside an income tax, no matter how low the rates." Governments being what governments are, the rates probably wouldn't stay at 9-9-9, as the government appetite grows. "Will a 9-9-9 plan inevitably over the years become a 15-15-15 plan and ultimately a 30-30-30 plan? Or worse?"
Cain dismisses his critics with the passion of a businessman who saved a dying company when nobody else could. Critics who say his plan would not raise enough money "are absolutely wrong because they did a static analysis," he told a television interviewer before this week's debate, billed as a debate about the economy and how to fix it. "We had this done with the dynamic analysis by an outside firm, so they are making an erroneous assumption."
Flawed or not, something has raised Herman Cain to first-tier status, a legitimate rival for Mitt Romney, who continues to slog on as the boring alternative to the rest of the field. But if he's the nominee, he will be the choice of a reluctant and restive party. Few Republicans seem deliriously happy about it. Nobody is throwing his hat in the air for him, and the fact that most men no longer wear hats is only part of the reason.
Cain inspires a little hat-throwing. On the very day of this week's debate, two new presidential polls showed him running ahead of everyone else in South Carolina, which votes just after the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire primary, and neck-and-neck with Romney in Virginia.
That might not be Cain's hot breath on the back of his neck, but Romney is showing a little envy, if not something stronger, of the Cain magic. When Cain, along with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich scoffed that the 59-point Romney economic plan is complicated, convoluted and confusing, Romney grew a mite snappish. "Simple answers aren't always remedies for difficult problems," he told the plain-speaking Cain.
The key to Cain's rocket to the stars (or if he's lucky at least to Iowa) lies in the enemies he attracts. He can stick the needle to Barack Obama in a way that no other candidate can in an era drenched in political correctness. To the delight of conservatives, this enrages the likes of Cornel West, the Princeton professor who says Cain should "get off the symbolic crack pipe," and the actor Harry Belafonte, who sneers that Cain is "a bad apple."
Cain sneers right back: "(Barack Obama) has never been a part of the black experience in America. I can talk about that. I can talk about what it really meant to be po' before I was poor. He can't." He summarily dismisses West and Belafonte: "I left the Democrat plantation a long time ago."
The odds, the history and the harsh laws of presidential politics say there's no way Cain can win the nomination. Probably not -- but the prospect of a black Republican nominee challenging a black Democratic incumbent is a remarkable prospect half a century after Little Rock, Birmingham, Selma and all that. That's not just hope. That's change.