Herman Cain is the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, a former Senate candidate in Georgia, and a columnist. On Wednesday, he announced that he’s forming a presidential exploratory committee. He spoke to NRO’s Jim Geraghty about it on Thursday.
NRO: Let’s get this out of the way: The last person whose first elected office was the presidency was Dwight Eisenhower, and he had led the war in Europe. What is your case to Americans that they should elect you straight to the Oval Office before any other elected position?
HERMAN CAIN: I think that American voters are ready for a problem solver, and not just another politician. I think people are becoming much more aware that successful businessmen are problem solvers, and that’s how they become and stay successful. I’ve gotten this impression over the last two years. What offices you’ve held before isn’t going to be their number one criterion.
What I am hearing from people I’ve talked to is, “What are the problems you want to focus on?” I’ve identified those, as well as what I would do about them. I have identified many of the ideas that I call low-hanging fruit, commonsense solutions that resonate with people.
Let me give you a few examples. One of the first questions I always get when I do one of my talks or Cain coffees or town-hall meetings is, “What would you do about the economy differently?” First of all, make the tax rates permanent, because extending them for two years just extends the uncertainty hanging over this economy for two more years. Secondly, I would ask the Congress to lower the top corporate-tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. Why? Because we are the only developed nation in the world that has not lowered its top corporate-tax rate in the last 15 years. The other thing I would do is lower the capital-gains-tax rate, because we punish risk too much in this country. We’re never really going to stimulate the economy in a big way until we do that.
Here’s one piece of low-hanging fruit that just amazes me that Washington doesn’t do it — it’s kind of like a no-brainer. Profits that have been generated overseas by multinational corporations — if they bring those profits back to the United States in the form of repatriated profits, then, in many cases, companies are going to have to pay double taxation. So they leave the money offshore. The last time we had a tax holiday for repatriated profits, back in 2003 under President Bush, nearly $350 billion came back into the country. It’s been estimated that we now have over $800 billion that could come back into our economy.
The other response to when people say, “You’ve never held public office,” is, “That’s true. Most of the people in Washington, D.C., have held public office before. How’s that working out for you?” The answer is, we have a mess. The biggest thing that we lack is leadership. My record in business speaks for itself when it comes to my ability to identify real problems and make sure that we have the right people in place who understand how to address them.
NRO: You’ve touched on some of your top priorities — could you talk a bit beyond the economy, about foreign policy or social issues?
CAIN: On foreign policy, I do not agree with the policies of this administration, because I think it is weakening our national security. I believe our military is being weakened — I don’t think a big enough priority has been put on providing our men and women the resources they need. Also, on the START treaty, I believe we gave away too much. I don’t think the United States should tie its hands when it comes to developing missile-defense systems. The world is now more dangerous, not less dangerous. Not being able to build that missile-defense system in Turkey, or not being able to deploy that system in other friendly parts of the world, I think that’s moving in the wrong direction.
We could grow this economy faster if we had bolder, more direct stimulus policies. The stimulus bill was a spending bill, even though we were told it was going to stimulate the economy. We were told there were shovel-ready projects out there, when there were not — the president came back and admitted there were no such things as shovel-ready projects. We were told that unemployment would stay below 8 percent — none of those things happened. That’s what has a lot of the American people frustrated.
Another priority issue is immigration, which is not one problem but three problems — securing the border, enforcing the laws that are there, and promoting the path to citizenship that is already there. When I hear politicians talk about “comprehensive immigration reform,” to me that’s code for “We don’t know what to do,” or “We want to leave our borders open.”
There is no doubt that spending is out of control in Washington, D.C. We have to make some tough choices, but we also have to make some smart choices. That’s not happening when you’ve got 535 members of Congress who are trying to lead by committee and you have a president trying to lead with an army of czars. It can’t be done.
NRO: You touched on reducing spending. What do you think of Paul Ryan’s budget roadmap?
CAIN: Most of Ryan’s roadmap I really like; he’s got a lot of great elements in there. One of my favorites is the two-rate tax on income that would generate the same amount of revenue. I think that is an excellent idea. I love the idea of personal retirement accounts. Notice I didn’t say “privatization” — that’s how, quite frankly, the idea got demagogued last time, when President Bush brought up personal retirement accounts.
What I like most is that he has had it scored by CBO — I don’t always agree with CBO in terms of how they score stuff, but the fact of the matter is we can make Social Security solvent. You don’t hear people talking about that. He’s not only talking about it, he’s also done the math to see how we can get there.
NRO: This is not the first time you’ve run for office; you ran for Senate in Georgia in 2004. What did you learn in that experience that you’ll apply to this potential campaign?
CAIN: After I finished running for Senate, I thought I would probably never run for office again. In other words, I didn’t have this insatiable appetite to run and run and run until I finally won something. It’s almost like when I graduated from college — I went to Morehouse, a very challenging school, and when I graduated, I said, “I’m never going to take another class again in my life. That was hard!” Three years later, I learned that I had ambitions in life that required me to get some additional education, so I ultimately went back to get my master’s degree from Purdue University.
Here are the two biggest lessons I took from that Senate race: One, if I ever run again, I’m going to start early. Secondly, I’m going to hire good people early. By the time an unknown like Herman Cain got his primary campaign up and running, now-senator Johnny Isakson had had almost a year’s lead on me — not only in terms of putting together and organizing his campaign, but also in terms of fundraising. I found a lot of people liked what I had to say, but they had already made a commitment.
This is one reason I wanted to file the papers for my presidential exploratory committee now, so we can test voter support and test financial support.
NRO: You’re dipping your toe in the water with an exploratory committee. Do you have criteria for whether or not to say, officially, “Yes, I want to do this”?
CAIN: Yes. The first criterion is whether or not I can be competitive in raising money, because, as you know, campaigns don’t run on air. The initial response has been fantastic — and not just what we’ve seen in the last two days. When I’ve traveled around, speaking to different groups, people have pledged their support, and as soon as I was ready and set up to accept funds, they were ready to write checks and reach out to others to write checks. That has exceeded expectations.
We don’t have to raise the most money. I don’t believe that, in order to win the presidency, we’re going to have to raise $750 million. That’s obscene. But we will raise enough to be competitive.
NRO: Every campaign has to think about the early calendar. The experience of Rudy Giuliani suggests that even when you have high name ID and plenty of money, if you’re not competitive in those early states, then even when a friendly state like Florida comes around, you can end up falling far short. Do you have an early-state strategy?
CAIN: We do have an early-state strategy — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and Georgia, as well as the Super Tuesday states. I’ve already been to Iowa seven times in the past two months. I’m going back this weekend. The way you win these early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and some of the others — is to get up close and personal and answer their questions and allow them to fully vet you. You really get vetted — some of your ideas get challenged, some of the issues you raise will get challenged. People all over the country read newspapers from those states. We have an early-state strategy, we don’t have a “lay back in the weeds and pop out later” strategy. We’ve already started to reach out to folks, and the early response has been fantastic.
NRO: There are a couple of news organizations that have scheduled some astonishingly early presidential debates, as early as this spring. Do you plan on participating in those?
CAIN: Yes. We will definitely be there if we’re invited, and I hope we will be.
NRO: This relates to your days running Godfather’s Pizza — when I Tweeted about your candidacy the other day, somebody responded that if you’re elected, we’ll get a budget in 60 minutes or our pizza is free. Are you ready for a million and one pizza jokes, and every pizza reference and pun imaginable in headlines?
CAIN: (laughing) I think the pizza jokes will get tired in about five minutes. I was talking to somebody the other day, and he said, “FDR ran on ‘a chicken in every pot.’ Will your slogan be ‘a pizza in every home’?” And I said, “My objective as president is not to put a pizza in every home, but to create an opportunity for people to go out and get their own pizza to put in their home.”
NRO: That’s a good line. Any final thoughts?
CAIN: Yes. I’ve been asked, am I running to win? The answer is yes. I’m not running for a consolation prize. Not running for national name ID in order to write a book. I’ve written four books and they’ve done quite well. I am running to win, because I believe I have been blessed with a unique set of skills that can be used to get this nation back on the right track. I know many liberals think we’re doing just fine, but when polls show 66 percent of the American people think we’re on the wrong track, we all have to do something differently and better. I made the choice to create a presidential exploratory committee.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review Online.