Herman Cain in Iowa: Politics With a Side of Fast-Food Know-How

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Visiting this week for a bus tour, the former CEO of Godfather's pizza sells himself with an all-business pitch

Herman Cain speaking - Hyungwon Kang : Reuters - banner.jpg

Herman Cain speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C. June 4. Credit: Hyungwon Kang/Reuters

MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA -- In a full, small side room of Legends American Grill, a spacious sports-themed eatery at the edge of a WalMart Supercenter parking lot on Wednesday, Herman Cain holds his audience rapt with tales of troubleshooting told with a dash of down-home sass. Asked to distinguish himself from his competitors, Cain says, "I'm a problem-solver, not a politician." By which he means he is not useless. The audience learns that 400-some Burger Kings in the greater Philadelphia area shot from worst to first in profits in just three short years of Herman Cain's adroit direction. Cain roundly rejects the relevance of political experience to effective public administration. What have politicians brought us but a pileup of deepening problems, an appointment with doom and pain? Cain's pitch to the mostly gray-haired group assembled at the Marshalltown stop of the Iowa Tea Party bus tour is that, if elected president, he will do for America what he has done for also-ran chains of pizza parlors and burger joints. He will rescue America from brink of ruin, restore luster to our tarnished crown.

Business is problem-solving. Herman Cain is all business. Elect Herman Cain: problem solved. This is his proposition.

At about noon, Cain alights from a sleek black sedan outside Legends, where he is greeted in the drizzle by a smattering of journalists. Before heading into the restaurant to address the expectant room, a Swiss television crew and a few reporters are ushered with Cain up the steps of an aging Holiday Rambler motor home parked nearby. The middle third of the "bus" is covered in a giant, jumbled, color decal that reads "Return to a Golden Foundation," "Train the Tea Party," and "www.teapartybustour.com" in big block letters above logos for the tour's sponsors--Iowa Tea Party, Gold Standard 2012, Leadership Institute, Tea Party Review--all printed atop a misty image of Old Glory superimposed over a parchment Constitution turned at 45 degrees. "People" of "We the People" is divided by the support post of a retracted retractable awning. The Holiday Rambler is fired up and taken for a slow spin around the WalMart lot and its various frontage and access roads, presumably so Swiss TV viewers can see Cain fielding questions while something like scenery slides by in a blur behind him, as if chatting amiably with newsmen while crisscrossing Iowa in a used recreational vehicle is something Herman Cain actually does.

Marshalltown is the tenth of 18 planned stops on the Iowa Tea Party bus tour. The presidential aspirants who drop in as featured guests are slotted into a more or less set program of the organizers' devising. Their syllabus emphasizes the gold standard, a cluster of family and school issues, and, of greatest electoral significance, activist education and mobilization. So, while Cain cruises the WalMart lot, the audience is warmed up by Jeff Bell, the policy director of the American Principles Project, whose staid disquisition on the horrors of inflation and the urgent need to return to a gold-backed currency is met with some mixture of zeal, indifference, and confusion.

Whatever makes Mitt Romney sound fake, Herman Cain has the opposite of that

When Herman Cain steps to the mic, between 8-foot tall banners reading "Preserve Innocence" and "Gold Standard 2012," people perk up. He is large, voluble, and warm. He leavens his business-speak with a pinch of folksiness, often leaving the g's off words like "leaving." He is a dark-skinned black man from Georgia, who attended a black college, belongs to a black church, and seems not to try to not sound black. Cain's delivery evidently delights the older, thoroughly Caucasian audience, especially at those moments when Cain mounts the pulpit and gives 'em a lick of Sunday fire. Whatever makes Mitt Romney sound fake, Herman Cain has the opposite of that. No one thinks Herman Cain is bullshitting them.

Cain's loose but practiced stump speech proceeds from crisis to crisis, sometimes with a window into his favored problem-solver's approach.

Touching very briefly on America's "moral crisis," Cain cites a TV network's recent omission of the words "under God" from a clip of kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as a symptom of sinister secularization alleged to have a "ripple effect in a whole lot of places that isn't always immediately obvious." Cain hazards no hint of a solution to this problem and swiftly moves on to the economy, which he likens to a train stuck on the tracks for want of "fuel," by which he means a vibrant private sector. Additionally, recovery is retarded, Cain says, because the president is "putting everything in the caboose," including a growing burden of debt, new regulations on business, and the National Labor Relations Board's legal complaint against Boeing's new non-union factory in South Carolina.

Cain offers few specifics pertaining to either end of America's little engine that won't, but he does speak passionately and at length on the merits of "an optional personal retirement account system" for Social Security, and the need for a policy of "energy independence," the idea that Americans should not buy from abroad what they can produce more expensively at home. Energy independence has eluded us so far because "We just haven't had the leadership or the plan to put it together," Cain says. "I've already got a team of people working on it."

Cain is more than willing to admit ignorance and rely on knowledgeable people closest to the problem when the circumstances call for it. "I don't know yet," Cain says explaining his unsettled position on Afghanistan. After all, he could not know how he was going to turn around the sputtering Burger Kings of Philadelphia before he was handed the job and access to the information that went with it. "It's why I don't shoot from the lip!"

Everyone I speak to after Cain's talk (and a quickie course in precinct organizing from the Arlington, Va.-based Leadership Institute) either favors Herman Cain over his GOP competitors, or is seriously considering throwing their support behind him.

Nate Rowland, a firefighter from Clive, is a Herman Cain man, for now. "I really like the fact he's not a career politician. To me Cain seems like he's genuine."

"He has my support. I'm convinced," says Mike Lang, from Creston. "One thing I like about him is his business experience, his ability to get things done," Lang mentions. So, why not Mitt Romney? "I just don't like Mitt Romney," he says. "Romneycare is a giant millstone around his neck."

Tom Lamb of Marshalltown is keeping Romney in mind, but "Right now I'm very impressed with Herman Cain." And Cain's lack of political experience is not holding him back, at least not in this crowd. "So far the career politicians, that hasn't worked at all," says Lamb's wife, Donna, who also mentions an affinity for Michele Bachmann.

The Lambs, who happily describe themselves as members of the tea party movement, say tea party Republicans, unlike the conventional GOP rank-and-file "Very strongly support following the Constitution. It should be the basis for everything we do. And less government. Government should be there to aid and not control." They believe the tea party movement will exert a powerful force in next year's caucuses. Ryan Rhodes, the chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, citing the success of his organization's efforts to educate volunteer activists about precinct organization and mobilization, doesn't think twice : "A tea-party-oriented candidate will win the caucuses."

Toward the end of the Q&A session, Cain suggests speeding domestic oil and gas production by creating a "regulatory reduction commission" that will ease regulatory control. In particular, Cain would seek the advice of energy executives whose firms' efforts have been hindered by environmental regulation. "If you've been abused by the EPA like Shell Oil, I'm going to ask the CEO of Shell Oil would he like to be on this commission, and give me some recommendations. The people closest to the problem are the ones who can solve the problem." It does not seem to occur to Cain that regulatory policy might not be improved in the public's interest by amplifying the influence of those it is meant to regulate.

"This nation is at a critical turning point. It is currently headed down the track of socialism," Cain declares as he rounds a corner toward the big finish. "Now, the good news is, folks, is it's not too late to get it back on track." Most of the tea-party crowd in Marshalltown is ready to believe that Herman Cain might be the man for that job, that not even a problem so dire as America's calamitous descent into socialism is too big to solve with a ready fund of food-industry know-how.

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Will Wilkinson blogs about American politics for The Economist.

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