INTRODUCING HIMSELF at the start of last night's Republican presidential debate in Nevada, Herman Cain said he was a "42-year businessman, which means I solve problems for a living." One problem he'd better solve soon is how to defend his trademark "9-9-9" tax-reform plan from the criticism heaped on it by every other candidate in the GOP race.
Cain's proposal -- which would replace the current federal tax code with three new taxes of 9 percent each on personal income, business profits, and sales -- has drawn fire from the right practically from the day it was unveiled. In a critique on Monday, the editors of National Review labeled it "Bold, Brash, and Wrong," and said its weaknesses "render it unworthy of conservative support." Cain should have been ready with a compelling defense of "9-9-9" when he walked onto that Las Vegas stage yesterday. He wasn't.
To Representative Michelle Bachmann's warning that Congress is perfectly capable of hiking a tax rate that starts at 9 percent to 90 percent, Cain replied: "Read our analysis." To former Senator Rick Santorum's objection that "9-9-9" would penalize taxpayers with children, Can responded: "That simply is not true." To Texas Governor Rick Perry's suggestion that Cain try to sell a 9 percent sales tax in sales-tax-free states like New Hampshire, Cain shot back, unconvincingly: "You are mixing apples and oranges."
That the debate's very first question generated such a spirited discussion of Cain's plan -- a discussion that lasted nearly 15 minutes, and delved into some serious tax-code wonkery -- suggests how seriously his candidacy is being taken, and how much he has grown politically in recent weeks. That he was not ready with clear and focused rebuttals when the other candidates attacked his signature proposal indicates how much more growing he still needs to do. A winning personality has propelled Cain into the limelight, but it will take more than that to keep him there.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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