When the entire candidate field opened fire on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax proposal in Tuesday night’s Republican debate in Las Vegas, you could almost hear the sound of hundreds of exhaled breaths in elite GOP circles. Cain’s improbable rise in national and early-state polls would now end, they probably figured, as GOP voters discovered the pizza man’s signature policy proposal wasn’t terribly well thought out. But it’s likely that Cain could have overcome the criticisms surrounding his tax proposal. What he will struggle to live down, on the other hand, are his recent comments on abortion.
The mounting criticisms of Cain’s 9-9-9 plan were troublesome, but far from fatal for the candidate. To begin, it’s unclear whether rank-and-file conservatives attracted to Cain in the first place will accept second-hand analysis from the “liberal” Tax Policy Center against the authority of Herman’s own web page and his humble Ohio economic advisors. Moreover, tax plans can be endlessly fiddled with, as Cain showed yesterday in his Detroit speech laying out a complicated “opportunity zone” exception to 9-9-9, which will address claims that it is highly regressive. And the heat that’s now on Cain for promoting a controversial set of tax reforms could soon be transferred to Rick Perry, who will unveil his own “flat tax” proposal next week.
But debate over Cain’s vulnerability on 9-9-9 might not matter as much now, because the candidate has subsequently committed an unforced error of much greater magnitude—and on an issue where tolerance of heresy in the GOP ranks has shrunk to the disappearing point: abortion. At a time when the veto power of the Right-to-Life movement over national Republican tickets has become plain as day (just ask John McCain, whose top two vice-presidential choices had to be dropped in favor of Sarah Palin), Cain somehow managed to flub answers to simple, familiar questions on abortion policy in an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan.
It was surprising enough that Cain seemed to back rape and incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban, since he said he didn’t as recently as two days ago (indeed, his hard-core anti-choice position was fundamental to his one prior candidacy, his unsuccessful 2004 Senate bid in Georgia against a rare pro-choice Republican, Johnny Isakson). But of far greater concern to the Right-to-Life lobby is the logic of Cain’s rambling answer, which seems to concede that abortion is generally a matter for families, not government, to decide. The highly influential proprietor of The Iowa Republican, Craig Robinson, made this clear in a post that opened up on Cain with both barrels:
Basically, Cain’s position as a candidate is that of pro-abortion activists. The government has no right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body. The difference is that a pro-life individual believes that child inside the womb is a life with inherent rights and that the mother should not be allowed to infringe it’s right to life [sic].
Cain will likely clarify his position, but how many times and on how many different subjects will he be allowed to ask for a “do-over” before he loses trust and credibility with voters?
Robinson’s piece—entitled “Do We Really Know Who Herman Cain Is?”—is quite certainly ricocheting around Iowa political circles. And Cain, whose front-runner status in Iowa is already vulnerable to his lack of organization and personal attention to the state, could not have picked a worse subject on which to stumble. The Iowa GOP is a place where right-to-lifers walk tall, and where “social issues” have not lost any of their old punch. Rick Santorum, who has already attacked Cain for his gaffe, is undoubtedly seeing this as a God-given opening to poach on Cain’s intensely conservative voter base, as will Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and the man whom so many Cain voters were supporting a month ago, Rick Perry.
Pro-lifers in Iowa and around the country will quickly be reminded that Cain joined the already-suspect Mitt Romney and the presumed RINO Jon Huntsman as the only candidates who refused to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s “Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge,” which promises all-out war on abortion supporters and providers, earlier this year. And like Robinson, agents of Cain’s rivals will use this incident to raise basic questions about the Tea Party favorite’s ideological reliability on other issues, including taxes. Cain is lucky that this weekend’s Des Moines banquet for Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition will involve candidate speeches rather than a full-on debate, though he may well draw fire over abortion from his rivals anyway.
Herman is a smooth operator with the soul of a born salesman, but this time his silver tongue may have undone him. Tax plans can be written or unwritten. For people who think legalized abortion represents an ongoing American Holocaust, however, the correct position is always the same, and any wrinkle or nuance that complicates “No!” is just going to get the candidate in deep trouble.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.