Politics & Policy

Cain: The Restaurant Years

He was already fighting the free-enterprise fight, back in the day.


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.”

For years, Cain maintained a fight against minimum-wage hikes. He was not successful: The minimum wage went from $4.25 in 1994 to $5.15 in 1997. But he did succeed in inserting some conditions. “Those provisions included hard-fought wins to allow employers to credit more tips toward the minimum wage and instituted a federal opportunity wage for teen employees,” reported Restaurants USA. “The same law also made sure restaurants that get billed by the Internal Revenue Service for FICA taxes on previously unreported tips are eligible for a federal income-tax credit for these FICA taxes.”

For Cain, it was an issue he had felt passionately about as far as back as the previous decade. “Flashing his oratorical gift before the industry for the first time, Cain focused instead on the minimum-wage hike that had just been proposed in Congress,” wrote Restaurant Business of a speech Cain had given to the NRA in the mid-1980s. ”He implored his surprised audience to close ranks behind the National Restaurant Association in its struggle to quash the bill. . . . If he’d asked his listeners to follow him off a cliff, they would have formed a line.”

In 1998, Cain returned to the issue of health care, appearing in TV and radio ads done by the Health Benefits Coalition in opposition to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D., Mass) proposed health-care plan. Calling the plan a “big government” scheme, Cain was critical. “Here’s the problem — if you don’t have health insurance, this bill won’t help you get it,” Cain said in the ad. “And if you do — you could lose it. Instead of making insurance affordable, this bill will drive up costs, create 56 new kinds of lawsuits — and two million more uninsured Americans.”

In addition to focusing on increasing the membership and influence of the NRA, he also supported a law that allowed restaurants of a certain size to play music without paying fees to the artists or companies. He fought against a measure that proposed reducing the legal blood-alcohol level when driving from .1 to .08, as first reported by Talking Points Memo. And he pushed hard for legislation that allowed small businesses to deduct 80 percent, not the 50 percent that was then the law, of costs associated with business meals.

But his overall attitude could fit right into the current primary fight. Speaking about one measure he was pushing at the time, Cain said in 1997, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star, “We are overregulated, overlegislated, and overtaxed.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...


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