Clinton, after a long day of softballs, was rattled. Cain, a black, southern business leader who could out-folksy Clinton, had fingered the central flaw in the administration’s proposal: the potential for increased insurance costs to eliminate jobs.
It was more than a splash of cold water; it was a punch to the gut of Hillarycare. The reaction to Cain’s critique was immediate. The exchange was featured on the CBS Evening News and ABC’s World News Tonight. Major newspapers, including the New York Times, highlighted the moment as a thorn in Clinton’s side.
The Clinton–Cain scuffle also drew the attention of Republican leaders, from Jack Kemp to Newt Gingrich, the two of whom enlisted Cain for the Economic Growth and Tax Reform Commission, a congressional study group, following that year’s midterms. For Cain, who had little prior interest in politics, it was a sudden, though welcome, development.
“When I confronted Clinton, I was just trying to help save Godfather’s Pizza,” Cain says. “I never had a desire or inclination to get into politics. People then started to encourage me to run for office, but that was not part of my game plan.”
But the bug had bit. Cain, who was already a leader at the National Restaurant Association at the time of the Clinton town hall, was retained in 1996 as the group’s full-time chief executive. He left Godfather’s to become a national corporate advocate and motivational speaker. He began to crisscross the country, giving hundreds of speeches to business and educational groups.
As his national profile increased, Cain took on a leadership role at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, becoming chairman in 1995. “Spending time at the Federal Reserve was a good learning opportunity for me,” he reflects. “It helped me to understand economic philosophies and polices that I had not previously known about.” For one, he saw up close how monetary policy influences the economy, from inflation to unemployment rates.
As Cain campaigns, he does not run away from his Federal Reserve experience, even as Ron Paul and others call for the institution to be eliminated. Cain would rather mend it than end it, using more congressional oversight. This is not always a crowd-pleasing message on the Des Moines–Manchester circuit. Still, as he makes this case, Cain takes care to do it with tea-party bravado, championing a strong dollar, praising the gold standard, and applauding Paul for his discerning criticism.
After the Hillarycare battles, Cain continued to find himself dabbling in national politics. During the 1996 presidential campaign, he was an adviser to Kemp, a former congressman and housing secretary and Bob Dole’s vice-presidential nominee. The pair had clicked the previous the year on Capitol Hill while serving together on the congressional study group.
For Cain, the working relationship with Kemp was invaluable. Their discussions about the power of pro-growth politics convinced Cain that his business sense could work in the public sector. As Cain builds his own message on the trail, he often thinks back to those talks with Kemp, he says. Cain knows that Kemp could have simply given him a few token handshakes as they worked together on the panel. Instead, he found a partner.
Working as Kemp’s political adviser during the heated presidential race was a thrill. “That was my first involvement in any kind of campaign,” Cain recalls. “After that, I still had no desire or motivation to run for office or get into politics.”
But GOP politicians continued to seek Cain out for counsel and support. Unsurprisingly, he remained close to Kemp, who wrote the introduction to Cain’s 1999 book, Leadership Is Common Sense. A year later, Cain was an active supporter of businessman Steve Forbes, a flat-tax champion, as he campaigned for the presidency.