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Herman Cain has played the role of the fat friend in the romance comedy of the Republican primary race: he's been there to make funny jokes and occasionally offer wise advice, but doesn't really move the plot forward. But Cain's sudden rise in polls, both nationally and in early voting states, has moved him to center stage -- literally. At Tuesday night's debate, hosted by The Washington Post and Bloomberg, Cain has bumped former frontrunner Rick Perry to the left and taken a central spot next to Mitt Romney. The Cain boomlet is officially here. That means the candidate will finally have to answer specific questions. Judging by the few answers he has given on the economy and foreign policy, this promises to be entertaining.
Even Cain's response to how he would answer a "gotcha question" -- not an actual gotcha question -- revealed he either knows very little about the Afghanistan war or assumes that voters will cheer on willful ignorance. Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody asked Cain how he would handle such journalistic trickery as being asked "Like who's the president of Uzbekistan?" Cain responded:
I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, 'You know, I don’t know. Do you know?' And then I’m going to say, 'how’s that going to create one job?' ...
Knowing who is the head of some of these small insignificant states around the world, I don’t think that is something that is critical to focusing on national security and getting this economy going.
Uzbekistan is important enough that the Senate approved
waiving restrictions on sending military aid to the country despite it's horrible human rights record last week; in September President Obama personally called
Uzbekistan's president last month to personally congratulate his country on 20 years of independence -- even though the anniversary had passed a month earlier. Why? Because Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan, and it's critical to shipping supplies to the troops since supply convoys from Pakistan are vulnerable to attacks.
But forget Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan. Let's talk about the economy. Cain's got his excellently-branded 9-9-9 plan, which would wipe out the current, complicated tax code in favor of a 9 percent tax on personal income, corporate income, and sales. CNN's Chris Isidore
reports that while Diane Lem Rogers, chief economist with the Concord Coalition, says it's "theoretically possible" that Cain's plan won't increase the deficit, most experts think the 9-9-9 plan wouldn't be able to bring in enough revenue. "But what is far more clear, according to the experts, is that the wealthy would end up paying less than under the current system, and the poor would end paying more," Isidore writes. The Washington Post
's Jennifer Rubin
tried to pin down Cain staffer Rich Lowrie, a "wealth management" consultant who helped create the plan. Rubin says Lowrie initially dismissed concerns that the plan would mean the lower and middle classes would pay a bigger share of taxes:
Lowrie insists it doesn’t because other “embedded” taxes (corporate taxes, payroll taxes) would be repealed. But most experts think the math here doesn’t work. ...
Cain’s plan is also vulnerable on the income tax side. After fencing with me for some time, Lowrie acknowledged that Cain didn’t care about progressivity. In devising the plan, Cain aimed for aimed for simplicity, transparency, and ”fairness” (in the “Webster definition” sense, he says, meaning that income is taxed the same for everyone).
Rubin concludes, "If Cain’s rivals want to stop his rise and get back in the game, they will need to start debating him on the merits of his ideas." Tuesday night, they have that opportunity. Politico's Jonathan Martin
predicts Rick Santorum will go after Cain on his tax plan. But whether the rest of the candidates do so seems less likely. The New York Times
' Michael D. Shear
says Cain can take advantage of the fact that Romney "is not likely to lash out at Mr. Cain during the debate. Despite Mr. Cain’s recent popularity, Mr. Romney’s advisers do not see him as a long-term threat to winning the nomination." The Washington Post
's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake
call the debate "Cain's moment" and say he must "sound smart on the economy." To do that, Cain needs the other candidates not to ask him any questions about it.
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is the former politics editor for The Wire