Jon Huntsman said it sounded like the price of a pizza. Rick Santorum said it would never pass. And Michelle Bachmann joked about its similarity to 6-6-6. “Turn it upside down,” she said, “and the devil’s in the details.”
They were all, of course, talking about Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, his proposal to radically overhaul the current tax code, replacing it with a 9-percent personal income tax, a 9-percent corporate tax, and a 9-percent national sales tax. Again and again, it came up in the GOP debate Tuesday night—so often, in fact, that host Charlie Rose complained that under the rules of the debate, “if you keep mentioning 9-9-9 and Herman Cain, I'm going to have to go back to him every other question.”
It was mentioned so frequently by Cain’s opponents that some pundits are saying he won the debate. But I’ve got to wonder: Were the other candidates so out to lunch that they would freely give Cain, whose poll numbers have been rising, that much air time for his memorably named plan? Or were they purposely trying to associate the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO with a gimmick that labels him as overly simplistic for today’s complex times?
I’m going to give the field a little bit of credit and go with the latter. Frontrunner Mitt Romney may have had one of the best lines in the whole debate when he responded to Cain’s question about his economic plan. Cain, apparently looking to cast Romney as a politician with an overly convoluted proposal, asked Romney to name all the 59 points in his 160-page plan and defend that it, like one of his “guiding principles,” is “simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral.” Romney retorted that “simple answers are always very helpful but often times inadequate.” He instantly looked like the adult in the room.
Never mind, for now, about the merits of Cain’s plan, which has been called “a distributional monstrosity” and “exceptionally ill conceived” by former Reagan and George H. W. Bush Treasury official Bruce Bartlett and which was apparently dreamed up by an investment adviser at the local Wells Fargo branch in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Romney is right: Tax reform and repairs to our struggling economy are anything but simple matters that can be fixed through a campaign platform that sounds a little too much like something sold on an infomercial, and people know that. In fact, I’m actually skeptical that you can spell out how to fix the economy in 160 pages, much less in a catchy slogan.
Leadership advisers often recommend sticking to simple messages to get people pointed in the right direction and enthusiastic about your vision. But like all things, that idea can be taken way too far. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan may have eaten up a bunch of talk time during the debate. But in my mind, that probably hurt him more than it helped.
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