ALL THAT LUST FOR PURITY AND EXTREMISM HAS TO GO SOMEWHERE
I keep trying to figure out what's going to happen to all that support for Herman Cain. On the one hand, I think the Cain excitement is real. On the other hand, he obviously (as Talking Points Memo and Time have pointed out) has no real campaign on the ground in much of the country, including most of the key early states. Rachel Maddow argued last night that the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity is Cain's campaign -- an assertion she backed up by noting the large number of Cain advisers who came from AFP.
(By the way, Betty Cracker, in the comments to my last post, points to an AP article in which it's argued that Cain's Koch ties could actually hurt him with GOP voters because these voters "detest politics as usual and candidates connected with the party machine." No, I'm not joking -- an AP reporter actually thinks wingnuts will see the Kochs as the Establishment, rather than as brave freedom fighters speaking truth to power. Seriously! I say if one of the Kochs ran personally for the GOP nomination, he'd clear the field. But I digress.)
I suppose Koch-funded volunteers could swoop in at the last minute and get Cain voters to the caucuses in Iowa, to the polls in New Hampshire, and so on. But it doesn't seem like a sensible plan -- it doesn't seem like a substitute for a real campaign organization made up of people who've been working together on the task for a while and who know what they're doing. So a guy who could win Iowa easily -- he's leading by 10 points in the latest poll -- and who's close enough to embarrass Romney in New Hampshire according to the latest poll, probably can't really be competitive.
This leads Ross Douthat to say that Mitt Romney will inevitably be the GOP nominee. It leads to Steve Kornacki to argue that Romney will probably win while also asserting that the tea party has won, because now even Romney is a teabagger, or at least is sufficiently in sync with tea party thinking that the 'baggers will accept him as the nominee, and will in some cases even vote for him.
But I think the strength of Cain's campaign means that there's far too much distrust of Romney to just be wished away. Before Cain it was Perry, and before that it was Bachmann. (If Romney does win the nomination, I'm starting to think he's going to have to put someone extremely 'baggy -- Cain, Paul Ryan -- on the ticket with him just to avoid third-party defections in the general election.)
So Rick Perry's restaffing may be a harbinger of a comeback. He's smart to embrace a flat tax -- he spells out his plan today in a Wall Street Journal editorial, and it's not as radical as some of his competitors' plans, but maybe that means he'll be extreme enough. (Think of 2000, when George W. Bush wasn't the most Jesusy candidate, but was plenty Jesusy, certainly enough to please the Jesus base, especially when they saw that he looked a hell of a lot more electable than, say, Alan Keyes.)
I think having a tax plan of the flat or "fair" variety will become a litmus test in this campaign -- I'm predicting that Romney will eventually bite the bullet and offer one, or suffer as a result. It may be the latter because, as The New York Times reported yesterday, he's fudging on this in an embarrassing way:
"I love a flat tax," he said in August.
...But flat taxes, despite Mr. Romney's favorable comments, are not part of his campaign plan, which calls for extending Bush tax cuts and lowering corporate tax rates. Some conservative tax activists say his murky flat-tax stance highlights a broader complaint: his lack of consistency on conservatives’ core issues, like abortion.
Taxes are this year's Saddam for the GOP; Romney remains squishy at his peril. And Perry may be beginning to grasp what he needs to do to win. He's still the weakest aspect of his own campaign, but if he can solve that problem, he can win this, because the candidate these voters want is the guy they thought he was a couple of weeks ago. It's certainly not Romney.