It is disturbing that as the United States flounders through one of the most precipitate declines of prestige and economic and fiscal strength in its generally upwardly mobile history, there is such a scarcity of galvanizing candidates to take the headship of the country and lead it back to confidence and prosperity.
In the terrible year of 1968, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, over 500,000 draftees in an undeclared war and 200 to 400 body bags a week coming back from Vietnam, anti-war and race riots all over the country almost every week, there yet ran for their parties' presidential nominations, at one time or another in that year, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon. At the bottom of the great economic and psychological depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Alfred E. Smith competed to lead the nation out of the abyss. As America slid toward civil war, the 1860 Republican nomination was fought over by a strong field led by William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Abraham Lincoln.
Worrisome and annoying though conditions now are, civil war is not in the cards and one-third of the nation is not starving. But public finances are in unspeakable shambles, the education and justice systems are a disgrace, medical care is very uneven and is unsustainably costly, and real rates of unemployment and inflation (apart from those areas so depressed they have deflated, like housing) are in double digits.
The administration has failed and only the well-intentioned indulgence given the country's non-Caucasian president prevents it from receiving the obloquy that would certainly fall upon a Republican regime with such a record of fiscal and foreign policy mismanagement. The money supply has effectively quadrupled, there has been no progress on reduction of oil imports, and there is no real recovery -- the Pelosian apotheosis of the $800 billion 'stimulus' was a disaster.
But where are the Republicans? Their better people are not ripe, such as Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio, or are shopworn names (Jeb Bush), and aren't running. A Blitzkrieg of persuasion did not dislodge New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and the declared candidates have not generated a firestorm of enthusiasm. On present odds, any plausible Republican candidate should win the election, but in a time of great need and much passion, the nearly two-thirds of Americans who disapprove the incumbent's job performance want to be ignited.
Mitt Romney is the Republican default page, almost the inevitable candidate, but can't get clear of the suspicion that he is essentially a malleable, underwhelming android. He has, over the years, been on most sides of most issues, such as abortion and health care, and never really pushes the right button.
I doubt that anyone really cares about his religion, and America seems ready to absorb the discountenancing reality of having a chief of state who rejoices in the name of Mitt. And the governor will presumably withstand concerns about why he drove from Boston to Canada with the redoubtable family dog, Seamus, perched incontinently on top of the car in his windblown and vibrating house. The New York Times's emissary to geeky Democrats, Gail Collins, seems to have worked this into most of the columns she has written almost since before Seamus became a Romney.
When Texas Governor Rick Perry jogged into the race, picking off coyotes with his hand gun on the run, he surged upwards and ahead of Romney in the polls, but fell away again after accusing Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke of treason, and speaking darkly of secession, and reminding debate watchers of all they didn't remember fondly of swaggering, tongue-tied Texans. (His proposal of a 20 per cent flat tax is interesting and may help him back to a stabler position in the polls.)
Just the rumour of Christie challenged Romney's polls leadership again. A one-term governor, unworldly, obese, and with the saturnine provenance of the U.S. prosecution service, he yet pulled even with the timeless front-runner just on the announcement that he was thinking about it. The post-Christie deflation had scarcely taken hold when Herman Cain rose from the misty depths of the field of declared candidates to come neck and neck with Romney, never alone at the head of the pack for long.
Romney exudes calm and experience, is a proven administrator, a wealthy man (albeit as a private equity asset-stripper), and has doggedly pursued the presidency (as did his father, until he finally settled for the Housing and Urban Development department under Richard Nixon). Romney, if nominated, would collect a fair share of independents, as he is unfrightening to reasonable people, but the Tea Party would require defibrillation and constant exposure to the president to stay on task for the Republicans.
Governor Perry would hold the Tea party with all his Texan bluster and pyrotechnics, and his reassuring unfamiliarity with how English is spoken out of earshot of the oil rig and the rodeo. But the independents, unless mortally disgruntled by Obama, or unless Perry house-trains himself comprehensively, would be very sluggish.
And so the Magi alight upon Herman Cain; there is a star of hope and room in the inn yet. Cain is African-American, but not of the Jeremiah Wright victimhood-espousal variety. He boot-strapped himself through university, speaks of the land of opportunity and not of scarred racial oppression, had an impressive business career as an operator and marketer in the fast food industry where he led a successful management buy-out, and was chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. This last position is the most desirable possible qualification for a president to follow an administration that has been so dangerously fiscally profligate.
Cain's tax plan, nine per cent personal and corporate income taxes and a nine per cent national sales tax, is basically a good idea and the only believable radical thinking the candidates have produced (at least prior to Perry's 20 per cent tax plan this week). And almost everyone knows that the public finance, fiscal, and monetary crisis now needs radical reform. It may be that it has to be revenue positive and lighter on low income groups, and so 12, 12, and exonerations on the sales tax for retail food and low-cost and children's clothes could be modifications. But since half of economics is psychology, and the rest is grade three arithmetic, a candidate with an entrepreneurial and central banking background proposing a deficit-shrinking, job-creating tax simplification would have an electrifying effect on the world, especially if he took a hard money expert like Lew Lehrman as Treasury secretary.
Herman Cain is an attractive, forceful, and likeable speaker, though a bit jokey, but he would turn the debate from Obama's edgy, backbiting, soak-the-rich, appease the Wall Street occupiers to the rising tide that will uplift all, which is the only way to harness the strength of the whole country. He would need help in foreign policy, and could do worse than his fellow candidate Jon Huntsman, who has not caught fire, though he is a Chinese-speaking former ambassador to that country who is committed to preventing a nuclear Iran.
If Cain flakes off like Romney's previous running-mates, get ready for Romney and the greatest makeover since the second coming of Richard Nixon, while the martyred Seamus becomes the Chequers of the 21st century.