Yes, We Cain?

While Chris Christie, the latest would-be savior of the conservative establishment, consumed much of the last week’s media bandwidth (and quite a few calories too), the most important story in the GOP race right now is the fall of Rick Perry and his potential eclipse by the most unlikely of candidates.

The Texas governor is down, but certainly not out, as a cursory glance at the latest polls reveals. Perry has lost a lot of ground since his poor showings in recent debates, giving up a once-formidable national lead over Mitt Romney, but he remains in second place with strong support coming from early contest states, like Iowa and South Carolina. While Perry has relinquished the top spot to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor’s numbers haven’t budged at all. In fact, all of the candidates have held steady for several weeks now, save one: Herman Cain, who jumped 10 points in one week and now ties Perry with an average of 17 percent support among Republican voters.

Cain, a former pizza executive, happily reminds crowds that he has never held government office (which is code for losing every election in which he's ever run). He may lack a typical politician’s resume, but he knows how to appeal to the conservative base and certainly knows how to make a sale. The comparisons of his now-famous ‘9-9-9’ tax plan to a pizza commercial are now a constant refrain for the political class, but they reflect something deeper. Herman Cain has the ability to take sophisticated policy ideas and make them accessible to a large audience, a trait he shares with the most successful politicians. Incidentally, the fact that Mitt Romney, with his 59-point jobs plan, lacks this talent is part of the reason why he seems unable to lock down more support. In response, many would argue that Cain’s tax proposal is overly simplistic and should be regarded as nothing more than a sales pitch. Yet these are wrong, on both counts.

Though the idea of nuking the current tax code and replacing it with a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent corporate income tax, and a 9 percent national sales tax may sound like brute-force public policy, it is rooted in a very basic and very intelligent observation. While working- and middle-class Americans enjoy the most from programs like Medicare and Social Security, they also pay the least to cover the costs of these programs. This is why Barack Obama, all Tea Party accusations aside, is not a European-style socialist (he’s just an old-fashioned opportunist). The difference between Europe and America is not that they tax the rich and we don’t—it’s that they tax the middle class and we don’t.

Herman Cain’s ideas on taxes are rooted in a desire to force people to take ownership of the social programs on which they rely. While a ‘9-9-9’ tax structure would force many lower-income people to pay higher taxes, it would also remove many distortions and loopholes that are currently written into U.S. tax law. Lowering marginal tax rates and eliminating taxes on dividends and capital gains would also boost growth, savings, and investment, and above all, it would force Americans to choose, once and for all, between higher spending on social programs and lower taxes (something that politicians have avoided for the past few decades).

So what does all of this mean for the Republican race? After all, despite his surge in the polls, the odds of Herman Cain winning the nomination are still very slim, and Mitt Romney’s obliteration of Rick Perry’s lead has proven that Romney has improved enormously as a campaigner. Nevertheless, Cain’s rise has provided him with an enormous platform on which to promote his ideas on taxes and spending, and Cain’s stage presence will force Romney to clarify his own message on the economy. Romney, who will ultimately win the nomination, will thus become a stronger nominee, and, in the long run, will develop a proposal of his own to radically simplify America’s tax code.

Right now, the flat (or flatter) tax is on the rise—even Democrats, including President Obama, are starting to come around—and Herman Cain is its most visible messenger. Cain may not win the Republican nomination for President, but he clearly has a role to play in determining the future of the tax debate -- and the Republican Party.