Cain: The Restaurant Years
He was already fighting the free-enterprise fight, back in the day.


Katrina Trinko


In the 1990s, Herman Cain went to Washington and fought against minimum-wage hikes, worked to make welfare reform succeed, and advocated free trade.

He did so, not from a perch at a conservative think tank, but as chairman and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.

Cain didn’t just use the National Restaurant Association to further free-enterprise aims. He also worked to make the group significantly more influential than it had been. (Cain even started calling the group the NRA, because he was so convinced the group would become more influential than the gun association that he refused to worry over possible confusion, according to Nation’s Restaurant News.) And he took on issues — such as the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving, and whether small businesses could count restaurant meals as a business expense — that pertained to the restaurants’ interests, not necessarily the general public’s.

Cain didn’t succeed in dethroning the National Rifle Association as the first NRA that most people thought of, but he did increase the prominence of the National Restaurant Association. A 1999 National Journal article reported that he increased the number of companies in the association to 37,000, up from 33,000, and got the association to the No. 15 spot on a list of powerful lobbying groups assembled by Fortune magazine in 1998.

But Cain never lost sight of the ideological fight he delighted in waging.

“Welcome to the church of Herman Cain. There are no pews, Bibles or even much talk of God,” wrote the Omaha World-Herald about a speech Cain gave in 1997 at a Burger King convention. “This is more like a traveling salvation show for the business class. The sermon is 100 percent free enterprise.”

In light of his presidential campaign, Cain’s sparring with Pres. Bill Clinton in 1994 over the costs associated with Hillarycare has again become well-known. But for Cain, it was just the first step. That same year, he applauded the passage of the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which lowered tariffs, and pushed for its ratification. “Free trade is not a zero-sum game. Everyone can benefit,” Cain said, according to Nation’s Restaurant News.

In 1995, Cain held a joint press conference on welfare reform with one of his current primary rivals, Newt Gingrich. Cain, representing the NRA, pledged that the group would work to help provide jobs for former welfare recipients. Also present at the press conference was a Domino’s executive: “When Herman Cain can come to Washington and say the word ‘Domino’s,’ we are clearly on the road to reconciliation,” cracked Gingrich, according to the Omaha World-Herald. It was not a one-time flirtation with the matter for Cain. In 1997, in a Birmingham News piece headlined “Pizza CEO: Restaurants Willing to Hire the Homeless,” Cain was quoted on the reality of hiring former welfare recipients. “It takes them longer than typical employees. We as companies must do all we can to help. If that means training them or whatever it takes to bridge the gap, so be it,” he said.

But he also seemed to spend time in those years mulling over how to help draw people to the advantages of working even a low-paying job rather than none. “A radio host in Omaha asked me, ‘What do you say to a young man who can go out and make a lot of money selling drugs and doesn’t want your $4.75-an-hour job at Godfather’s?’” Cain told the Omaha World-Herald in 1996. “My response is this: There are two ways you can live your life — looking in front of you or looking over your shoulder. Show me some old drug dealers. Show me some old gang members. You decide whether you want to get old and look forward to the rest of your life, or whether you want to look behind you all the time and never see old.”


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review