Herman Cain is surging. Who is this guy, and how did he come out of virtually nowhere to suddenly lead the Republican presidential primary field?
Perhaps Mr. Cain is just a passing fancy, the party's and the pundits' flavor of the month. Although several national polls show him now leading prohibitive favorite Mitt Romney, the conventional wisdom is that Mr. Cain doesn't have the resources, political chops or connections to the Republican establishment needed to capture the nomination.
Some critics also scoff that Mr. Cain is less interested in winning than in raising his profile and selling copies of his new book. (If so, mission accomplished.) None of this dismissive talk seems to deter the former Godfather's Pizza executive. If anything, skepticism seems to embolden him.
Mr. Cain's meteoric rise from unknown to (fleeting?) front-runner reveals a little about Mr. Cain. But his surprising showing actually tells us a lot more about the state of the national Republican Party.
To begin, Mr. Cain's rocket-like rise confirms that key segments of the Republican primary electorate desperately want an alternative to Mr. Romney. A well-funded candidate who has clearly learned a lot from his 2008 campaign, the former Massachusetts governor hopes his cautious, mistake-free bid will gradually, if grudgingly, gain followers. Mr. Romney presents himself as the candidate to fall in line behind, not fall in love with.
A political nobody less than a year ago, Mr. Cain benefited by default from the serial stumbles of a pack of anti-Romneys — Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry — each of whom failed to sidetrack Mr. Romney's steady-as-he-goes path to the nomination. Mr. Cain hung around, stayed cool and waited for a chance to capitalize.
He did just that with his bold, easily articulated "9-9-9" tax reform proposal. Wipe out all the special exemptions, deductions and graduated rates of our complex tax code, Mr. Cain says, and replace them with a 9 percent tax on earned income, a 9 percent national sales tax and a 9 percent corporate tax.
Therein lies the second lesson of Mr. Cain's appeal: Republicans are starved for silver-bullet solutions to America's complex fiscal realities.
Mr. Cain is not the first Republican to propose a flat-tax plan. (Four years ago, Mike Huckabee was the flat-taxers' golden boy; before that were Steve Forbes and others.) What makes Mr. Cain's 9-9-9 formula particularly appealing to quick-fixers is not only its simplicity but the levying of identical rates on individuals, corporations and consumers. That the across-the-board rate is a single digit doesn't hurt, either.
What's unclear about Mr. Cain's tax plan, however, is whether it would be, as he claims, revenue-neutral — an important issue, given that tax revenues have fallen from 19 percent to 15 percent of gross domestic product during the past decade. What is clear is that a flat national sales tax would be highly regressive, and a flat income tax would eliminate the tax code's only real progressivity.
The Cain-led mutiny within the GOP is also a rebuke of both party insiders and the political establishment itself. Although Mr. Cain is not a total government novice — he briefly served on the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City — he presents himself as a plainspoken, private-sector alternative to the double-talking career politicians elsewhere in the GOP field who complain incessantly about government despite having spent most of their adult lives in politics.
A final point about Mr. Cain: He is an African-American. Given the evidence that opposition among some white voters to Mr. Obama is motivated partly by race — a recent study shows that certain white voters approve of provisions in the Affordable Care Act when associated with Bill Clinton but not when associated with Mr. Obama — wouldn't it be something if the GOP nominated a black man to challenge the first black president? Even if Mr. Cain doesn't get that far, it's easy to imagine Mr. Romney, as nominee, trying to bolster his conservative credentials — and add diversity to the ticket at the same time — by tapping Mr. Cain to be his vice presidential running mate.
Mr. Cain needs to say more about subjects other than his nine-trick-pony tax plan. For now, his plan says as much, if not more, about the national Republican Party as it does about him.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.