Politics

Herman Cain’s Strange Bid to Become the GOP’s Kingmaker

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“If forty economists tell you it’s Thursday,” Jim Grant, the fiat money doomsdayer, warned, “you’d better check the calendar.” As I proceeded to do just that (Thursday, yep), the audience of conservatives at the CPAC panel “The Need For a 21st Center Gold Standard” continued nodding along. The panel had attracted a predictable assortment of eccentrics, including a sizable contingent of blazered college-age devotees of Ron Paul.

Sitting among them was also at least one would-be leader of the Republican Party: Rich “9-9-9” Lowrie, the man who crafted the plan that nearly sent Herman Cain to the White House. In our current reality TV presidential campaign, it’s men like Lowrie who have risen to the status of minor celebrity. But with that great power comes great responsibility. Just before the event ended, Lowrie stood up and ceremoniously thanked the audience for caring about gold, reminding them to keep an eye out for the issue on Cain’s recently-launched “Solutions Revolution” bus tour. Yes, a Herman Cain bus tour: As they say, the show must go on.

Like any reboot, of course, the “Solutions Revolution” is a slightly altered version of its predecessor. For one thing, it places a renewed emphasis on policy. Indeed, Cain is now trying to leverage his newfound power to push forward his policy prioritiesmore on those in a minutewithin the Republican Party. He no longer wants to be Presidenthe wants to be the GOP’s kingmaker.

In that way, “Solutions Revolution” is not just a bus tour. (Though it’s definitely also a bus tour: “They’ve repainted the bushe’s going back into campaign mode,” Lowrie says.) Cain also has a new website “cainconnections.com” and plans for a Crossroads GPS-style advocacy group are underway. According to Lowrie, whom I caught up with after the panel, Cain and his threadbare staff have also recently begun planning a series of strategic endorsements: They are currently scouring the country for Tea Party candidates who might want his backing.

Those who covet Cain’s endorsement, however, will have to pay a price. Candidates will first be obliged to vouch support for three specific policies. The first, unsurprisingly, is 9-9-9. The second is the creation of a government agency that would subject all regulations to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. (Cain seems unmoved by the fact that the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, currently run by Cass Sunstein, already basically has this job.)

Finally, there’s the gold standard. Cain is hoping to channel his supporters’ evident suspicion of the “complex and burdensome tax code” (the 9-9-9 plan still receives raucous Pavlovian cheers whenever Cain mentions it) towards the complicated workings of the Federal Reserve. This is where Cain’s populist fundamentalism hits bedrock. “As much pride of authorship I have of 9-9-9,” Lowrie told me, “this is more important.” 

Whether because of him or despite him, Cain’s preferred policies are gaining ground. The first politician to earn Cain’s endorsement under his criteria was Newt Gingrich: In January, ten days after Gingrich first publicly praised “hard money,” Cain officially gave him his backing. (In return, Gingrich said that if elected, he’d name Cain to co-chair his “Economic Growth and Tax Reform Advisory Council.”) Cain’s new director of policy outreach, Ken Braun, told me that he has pinpointed several other congressional candidates who have reached out to Cain in search of an endorsement, including Georgia talk radio host Martha Zoller and Karen Harrington, who is running against Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in Florida.

Another endorsee is Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who has filed papers to run for Congress in Ohio. Having recently embraced 9-9-9, Joe earned Cain’s nod on Thursday afternoon, during his official speech before CPAC. “Go to your representative, or your senatorial candidate, before they get elected, and ask them to adopt 9-9-9,” he exhorted the crowd. “We are going to get Congress and the president, basically to embrace this solution that the American people want.”

More than anything, the “Solutions Revolution” seems reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s “One Nation” bus tour. Indeed, Cain's staffers encourage the comparison, while reserving room for the possibility that he has improved on his forebear. “We're a little bit more focused than Palin,” Braun told me, adding later, "We've got a marketing message." When I suggested the comparison to Lowrie, he bristled. “Palin has used her popularity to support candidates with causes, but again, this is all general stuff. Yes, I’m in favor of limited government. Yes, I’m in favor of lower taxes. The revolution iswe’re going to fight it with specific solutions.”

The implication is that Palin failed because her populism simply wasn’t wonky enough. It’s the ostensible sophistication of Cain’s new campaign that is supposed to ensure his presence on the national stage for the long-term. What’s the difference, you ask, between Herman Cain and a hockey mom? As Cain reminded the CPAC crowd, "I was a mathematics major in college."

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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