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A Cain-Do Candidate

The pizza magnate Republicans are flipping for.

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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“I had 25 job offers when I graduated,” Cain said. He listed a few: “Amoco Oil, Department of the Navy, Kellogg’s company, some of the biggest banks in America because they were all trying to diversify their workforce because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and they were actively going to black campuses.”

Cain took the job at the Navy Department as a civilian ballistics analyst and was granted deferments from the draft. In 1971, he earned a graduate degree in computer science at Purdue and went back to the Navy, making considerably more money. He then began to climb the corporate ladder at Coca-Cola, where he worked for four years, before heading to the Pillsbury corporation. While there, he managed 400 Burger Kings in the Philadelphia area. Then he was placed in charge of Godfather’s Pizza, a company on the verge of bankruptcy, and turned it around. In 1988, he bought the company with a group of investors.

His experience at Godfather’s is when he started “to make the turn to conservative,” Cain said. “When I took over Godfather’s Pizza, started to make some real money, .  .  . I started to see how much I was paying in taxes. I started to see how minimum wage legislation was impacting my ability to keep Godfather’s going.”

Cain’s first experience in the political spotlight came at one of Bill Clinton’s 1994 town hall meetings on health care. Cain told the president that he would have to lay off employees if Hillary-care became law. Clinton disputed Cain’s claim. “Mr. President, with all due respect, your calculation on what the impact would do, quite honestly, is incorrect,” Cain replied.

Cain became active in Republican politics and served as an adviser to vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp in 1996. In 1999, he briefly opened up a presidential exploratory committee before dropping out and endorsing Steve Forbes. In 2004, he ran for Senate in Georgia in a three-way primary with two sitting congressmen, Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins. Isakson won the primary with 53 percent of the vote. Cain came in second, at 26 percent, 5 points ahead of Collins. 

If Cain couldn’t win a Republican Senate primary in Georgia, why might he fare better in a presidential primary? First, the mood of the party is far less establishment-oriented now. And in 2004, Cain didn’t have much of a profile in Georgia, when he was hammered by Isakson for having given money to “pro-choice Democrat Senator Kerrey” (that would be Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, where Godfather’s is headquartered) and for endorsing “Bush’s opponent” (that would be Steve Forbes).

After working as a talk radio host in Atlanta for the past few years, Cain is now riding the talk radio and cable news circuit and drawing a lot of attention. “There is a real interest in Herman Cain,” says conservative Iowa congressman Steve King. “He has all the right positions, and he’s a personality that people are attracted to.” King, a close ally of Michele Bachmann, said that both candidates “have good relations with Tea Parties across the country, and I don’t know whether one of them has an advantage there.” 

King adds that people underestimate “how much strength Mike Huckabee [who won Iowa in 2008] got from his support for the Fair Tax”—abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a 30 percent national sales tax.

While Cain’s support of the Fair Tax and Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform may endear him to some Tea Partiers, one issue that could hurt Cain with that cohort is his endorsement of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which Bachmann voted against.

“The concept of TARP, I did support because I studied the financial meltdown,” Cain says. “It’s about understanding a little bit of economics. So the Bush administration, they were giving us the correct assessment of the financial meltdown. .  .  . We had to do something drastic.” 

But, Cain says, he disagrees with how TARP was administered and insists his initial support for the multi-billion-dollar government bank bailout won’t hurt him. “TARP didn’t inspire the Tea Party, runaway spending inspired the Tea Party,” he says. “Then it was the legislation forced down our throats with the health care bill.” Whether or not TARP “inspired” the Tea Party, most conservatives don’t seem to be holding it against Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, and Tom Coburn, who also supported it.

Cain’s service as chairman of the Kansas City Fed is another source of criticism from some Tea Partiers. Cain is unapologetic about his work but says the Fed now needs to be fixed. “They’ve inflated the currency too much,” he says. But saying we should get rid of the Fed is “like saying, ‘Let’s just get rid of the air traffic control system,’ ” Cain told me. “You’d have planes running into each other all the time. It’s stupid. Okay? It’s crazy.”

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