Herman Cain, Occupy Wall Street, and The Republican Dilemma

With a plain-talking businessman surging in the Republican nomination polls and the protests on Wall Street occupying the media’s imagination, conservatives are beginning to realize that they might have misinterpreted voters’ behavior on taxes and the economy. But are they already too late?

It’s been a week of confounded expectations in American politics. First, the businessman Herman Cain, initially mocked as a pizza-loving also-ran who’d never held elective office trying to gain listeners for his once-and-future radio show, slid into second place in both national polls and in many battleground states. He’s now filling what you might refer to as the “Rick-Perry-is-tired void.” Then, despite general media dismissal of the Occupy Wall Street protests, the disaffected crowd exploded from a cursory puff piece into a running mid-level “news item.” As the Times, no friend to the protesters, featured Paul Krugman noting, NPR didn’t even cover them until nine days after they’d begun, but now they’re competing for Page A1 space with the story of Cain’s rise to prominence.

These events seem unrelated, but Herman Cain smashed the two together when asked about Occupy Wall Street in a video interview with the Wall Street Journal. As New York magazine transcribed, Cain’s message to the protesters was simple:

I don’t have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration. Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job, and you’re not rich, blame yourself!

The magazine pointed out that Cain’s “blame yourself” rallying cry sounds uncomfortably like Phil Gramm’s dismissal of Americans as a “nation of whiners” in 2008 when he was John McCain’s economic advisor. That offhand remark helped sink McCain’s already-slim chances of winning the presidency. But surprisingly, none of the other Republican candidates have pounced on Cain’s statement the way they did on Rick Perry’s “ponzi scheme” comments about Social Security, or his stances on immigration. With the Iowa caucuses rapidly approaching and the field of candidates increasingly fighting for air, you’d think a line like Cain’s would be a gift-wrapped opportunity for them to make a move.

The problem is that Cain is effectively speaking with the voice of the Republican Party, or at least its major players. Fox News has certainly repeated it time and time again, both before and after Cain distilled the feeling into a simple and effective statement. Like Democrats, Republicans are loathe to upset the wealthy donors in “the 1%” that will guide them through the long, punishing campaign season, but their responses don’t carry any hint of the Democrats’ lines about misplaced antipathy or more general statements about how the bad economy has made everyone unhappy. Republicans are accusing Occupy Wall Street of being maliciously lazy, not merely misguided, and Cain’s no-filter honesty about it is what’s driving his rise to the top of the party’s pack.

This contempt makes sense when you consider that, as a political strategy, it’s been remarkably successful in the relatively good economic times we’ve had until recently. In 2000, when Al Gore railed against George W. Bush’s policies as “benefiting the top 1%,” a poll found that 19% of America considered itself in the top 1%. Republicans thought that the Reagan years had hard-wired them in to a fundamental truth of American political behavior: voters don’t want themselves or people richer than themselves to pay more taxes, because they think they or their children will be doing better off as time goes by. It’s a safe bet that many of the 24% or so of Americans who still supported George W. Bush at the end of his presidency feel that way, and they make up the most engaged Republican primary voters.

All Herman Cain is doing in accusing Occupy Wall Street of laziness is tapping into that basic “taxes are bad, bootstraps are good” trope. As his candidacy rises and he continues to make blunt statements, it’s going to be harder for other candidates to avoid taking similar positions. But Republicans are rightly very skittish about following in Cain’s footsteps, because many of their strategists are realizing that the truth they thought they had a monopoly on is only a symptom of a larger American political behavior.

Americans, to generalize grossly, are individualists and are driven most fundamentally by the concept of “fairness.” This leads to statements like “it’s not fair that 47% of Americans pay no federal income tax,” or “it’s not fair that I work so hard yet the government still takes home a good chunk of my cash before I even see it.” The thing is, it also leads to lines such as “it’s not fair that Warren Buffett pays less of a percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary does,” or “it’s not fair that financial institutions fight regulations tooth-and-nail, then come running to the government when their investments go bust, especially while so many suffer without jobs.”

Occupy Wall Street, for all its fractured messaging, has brought fairness to the front of the debate again in a manner that’s about more than just taxes. Is it fair that financial institutions were effectively given blank slates while individuals were merely strung along on a series of unemployment benefit extensions? Regardless of the complicated arguments behind the financial sector’s bailout, the fairness interest in the question strikes a fundamental chord.

Accusing people agitating for fairness as being “lazy” might be a good attempt to control the news narrative if unemployment were at, say, 6%. But at 9.1% and with both under-employed and no-longer-looking workers pushing actual joblessness much higher, the anecdotal evidence people have in front of them now outweighs the general spin for all but the most dedicated partisans. I’d be willing to bet that every single person who reads this either knows someone who falls into the un/underemployed category or is in there him- or herself. When we see our friends, neighbors and family suffering in this way, it becomes more real than “those crazies out there are lazy and that’s why they don’t have jobs,” because we know people for whom that statement just isn’t true.

With the grim general electorate no longer supporting the “tax less, spend less, regulate less” mantra that Republicans need to adopt to succeed in the primaries, the candidates are stuck in a dangerous position. It will be interesting to see if a question comes up about the protesters at the debate tomorrow night. It’s likely that most candidates (except Herman Cain and maybe Ron Paul) will hedge their bets somewhat, trying to turn the question into an attack on “Barack Obama’s failed policies.” Granted, Obama is not benefiting from this discontent, either. But at the end of the day, his ineffectual skirting of the issue may be what people hold their nose and vote for, as opposed to the flat-out refutation of the problem that the Republican orthodoxy dictates.

The Republican base, however, will not go quietly. Shaken by the effectiveness of the “We are the 99 percent” slogan supporting the protests that’s cropped up on Twitter and Facebook, some strategists taken to promulgating a “we are the 53 percent” slogan, in reference to the number of people who pay any federal income tax at all. In many ways, the claim tries to edge back in on an appeal to fairness. A Republican voter I spoke to recently said “I don’t get that Occupy Wall Street. You know, if the 47% of Americans who didn’t pay any income tax were told to put in $1, we’d be in much better shape.” That sounds like a seductive argument, especially since you can win an election 53-47%.

But once again, to anyone who’s gotten a paycheck before, that argument is less persuasive in this bad economy than the fairness gap between the 99% and the 1%. People who work pay payroll taxes (which is the one tax Republicans aren’t in favor of cutting), state income taxes, sales taxes, vice taxes, and now, it seems, we’ll be paying for the privilege of our debit cards if we don’t have enough money in our accounts. Seeing those withholdings add up while financial institutions and the very rich exploit loopholes/capital gains is galling no matter who’s paying federal income tax. Furthermore, on a basic mathematical level, asking 47% of America to chip in $1 would net you $141 million, assuming everyone from a mid-level salaried employee in Houghton, MI to the schizophrenic homeless man in the shelter down the street from Capitol Hill paid it. That’s enough to pay for about seven hours of the Financial Year 2011 American war effort.

In talking about the economy, Republicans are belatedly realizing that fairness, not taxes, is the biggest American political motivator. But they still have to win a primary with a very vocal minority of the electorate that would rather roll back the social safety net to which the country has become accustomed and return to the Gilded Age of robber-barons, bank panics, and “self-sufficiency.” Herman Cain is playing directly to that crowd with his soundbyte-ready contempt for Occupy Wall Street and his easy-to-remember, regressive-to-implement “9-9-9 plan” for taxes. The rest of the Republican candidates will have to determine how far they want to go before the angry general election voters decide that as bad as things currently are, it’d be worse to have someone even more out-of-touch with fairness winning the 2012 election.

More Faster Politics: Occupy Wall Street: The Left Alternative to the Tea Party
More Faster Wall Street: Dear Bank of America, This is Why America Hates You
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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on ...read more

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