At the National Press Club tonight, former presidential hopeful Herman Cain delivered the official State Of The Union rebuttal on the behalf of the Tea Party, marking the second time the nascent conservative movement has fulfilled that role. But while Herman Cain improved on the performance of his predecessor, Michele Bachmann, and managed to deliver the standard Tea Party talking points against the Obama administration, he didn't do much to prove the necessity of a Tea Party rebuttal. His critique of Obama was a carbon copy of what every standard issue establishment Republican would say. And there was not much effort to establish anything like a Tea Party platform of policy ideas. In fact, Cain's elocution of a Tea Party platform fell well short of his elocution of his own policy platform.
Cain began the speech with a riff on how badly the Tea Party is disrespected, despite the fact that many people, in his estimation, were "Tea Party people and don't know it." He railed against "media elites" for "marginalizing the Tea Party" -- a curious charge, given the fact that the Tea Party has been wildly and enthusiastically supported by the Fox News Channel, and has already co-sponsored presidential debates with CNN.
Cain moved from there to a broad critique of President Barack Obama and his State Of The Union. He said that tonight's State Of The Union address was filled with "scripted rhetoric, proclamations, and promises of doing things about various problems." More pressingly, Cain said that the speech was filled with "class warfare ... picking winners and losers" and "attacks on businesses and Congress."
Cain next moved into a section of what "we did not hear" in the speech, which for Cain, boiled down to "the real facts about the state of the union." Here, Cain's critique was often effective. Cain is absolutely right that the real extent of the unemployment crisis is masked by the 8.5 percent top line statistic that is commonly referred to as "the unemployment rate." When you add in workers working less than full-time, or who have gotten so discouraged that they've stopped trying to find jobs, the real unemployment rate is much higher. Cain was also correct to note that "economic growth has been anemic." It has, and it will play a major role in determining whether Obama wins a second term.
However, he was on less shaky ground when he suggested that our growth rate should be around 5 percent. Tim Pawlenty made the same claim during his presidential run, and if we're being charitable, it was merely ambitious. If we're David Frum, we call it "too good to be true" and a promise he wouldn't, in all likelihood, be able to achieve. And if we're Glenn Kessler, you note that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton rarely hit 5 percent or more, and never sustained it. (It was also odd that Cain decided to compare the state of our economic growth with that of China, which operates under a command economy that one would presume would be unwelcome by the typical Tea Party member.)
Cain hit on many other points of argument and difference with the Obama administration, blaming the White House for rising gas prices, Obamacare, and the national debt (which Cain said had become "a national disgrace"). But the main point that Cain made about the State of the Union address was that, to his mind, it was "a hodgepodge of little ideas."
"Some of us are not stupid," said Cain. "The state of the union is not good. We want common sense solutions. That's how we do it outside of Washington, and we would like to see some inside of Washington." But here, Cain matched Obama's "hodgepodge of little ideas" with -- well ... with nothing, actually.
Unsurprisingly, Cain signaled an opposition to both government spending and raising revenue. He seemed then, to pivot right to his sweet spot -- the 9-9-9 plan -- by suggesting that Obama's tax reform proposals merely "manipulated around the edges." He then almost came close to discussing "9-9-9" -- the tax code, he said, should be junked outright, and replaced with something that treated "every taxpayer and every business the same." But he went no further than that, making no mention of the plan that defined his candidacy.
It was a disconcerting thing to listen to. Based upon the way Cain has said his candidacy would transform, one expects him to continue to promote "9-9-9" -- along with other "Cain solutions" -- rather confidently and aggressively. It's not certain why he didn't go farther tonight -- if he muted his own message or was restricted from talking about it further -- but the overall effect was self-neutering.
And the glancing mention of "9-9-9" was about the only strongly articulated "solution," despite Cain's insistence on common sense solutions. Cain said that the Tea Party "deserved" a "strong military" and a "brighter future" and probably a pony. And that the Obama administration needed to "stop the class warfare" and "attacking business" and "the blame game" and, most perplexingly, "the racial innuendo." But against the State Of The Union address' call for teamwork and unity and Seal Team Six-like dedication to a mission, Cain's call for people to just be handed what they felt they "deserved" sort of presented the image of the Tea Party as some wealthy, supine dowager, calling for another box of bonbons.
And that was fairly strange, given the fact that the Tea Party has real electoral achievements to tout and a strong record of moving the policy conversation in the Republican caucus in a rightward direction to celebrate. One would have thought, a year after Michele Bachmann's awkward rebuttal, that the Tea Party would have wanted to cite their own contributions to the effort in Washington, instead of deploying all of the passive imagery that Cain chose to place in the center of his oration. Either Cain didn't want to talk about that, or he didn't know enough about it to mention.
Cain ended his rebuttal with a historical reverie about the original Boston Tea Party, a call for a new "revolution," and a reminder to Washington that the Tea Party exists. "Washington is out of touch with the people," Cain said. "We must remind them, we the Tea Party are coming." He closed with a bit of Old Testament iconography: "We know that we are up against Golaith, but we will not become a single David, but an Army of Davids." It was a good image to end on, in that it restored the idea of the Tea Party as a dynamic, active organization. It's too bad that for the larger part of Cain's rebuttal was more in line with Leonard Cohen's famous song about David -- a baffled Cain composing his hallelujah.
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