New Hampshire Debate: Herman Cain Defends 999 Tax Plan; Bachmann Suggests it's From the Devil

At Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate, co-sponsored by the Washington Post and Bloomberg News at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the field appeared to narrow to a contest between two candidates: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain. As Cain endured the first real scrutiny of his hyped 9-9-9 tax plan, Romney managed to make no serious blunders, and came out as close as anyone did to winning.

Romney entered the arena buoyed by an endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the man a number of Republican would-be kingmakers had hoped would supplant Romney in the contest, but who decided last week to stay out of the race. (Now, of course, speculation on Christie's possible vice presidential aspirations run rampant.)

This was to have been the night when Texas Gov. Rick Perry redeemed himself after three previous fumbling debate performances, but the fourth time proved not the charm. Inexplicably, and knowing full well that the whole of the punditry class was assessing his longevity in the GOP presidential contest on the result of last night's debate, Perry came to a debate about the economy unarmed. (And this from a guy who carries a gun to walk his dog.) He had no economic plan. But hold tight, folks -- he'll have one in the next few days, he said. Promise!

Perry intimated that his jobs plan, as well as his overall plan for reviving the U.S. economy will focus on the extraction of fossil fuel in the American homeland, even as he bashed President Barack Obama's focus on green energy. (Everybody knows that dirty fuels are far more manly than clean ones.)

While it might be too soon to write Perry off -- he has a load of campaign cash, and has just begun his negative-ad campaign against Romney with a particularly brutal attack on Romney's Massachusetts health-care plan [video] -- he did little to stop his slide in the polls, which now show him virtually tied for third place with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

Cain Gets the Anti-Christ Treatment

Cain's ascendance to second place in the pollsters' rankings was marked by a fierce attack by Ron Paul, especially after Cain said he thought that Alan Greenspan had been a great Fed chairman. Cain himself served as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City for a time, offering a huge opening to Paul and his end-the-Fed credo.

"Alan Greenspan was a disaster!" Paul exclaimed. Not only did he keep interest rates too low for too long, Paul said, he had abandoned his belief in the gold standard -- the old monetary system whereby currency was backed by gold held in U.S. Treasury. But, Paul, said, he had heard that Greenspan was rethinking the gold standard.

(Herman Cain may be sequestered in his New Hampshire hotel room tonight, asking Greenspan to voice his revived gold-standard endorsement sooner rather than later.)

On the matter of his 9-9-9 tax plan -- a tax reduction plan that would impose a 9 percent national sales tax while reducing personal and corporate taxes to 9 percent -- Cain was cagey with regard to its provenance, and to the set of calculations on which it is based. When Bloomberg reporter Julianna Goldman suggested that a Bloomberg analysis of the Cain plan cast doubts on its ability to meet revenue goals, and cast it as regressive to the fortunes of middle- and low-income Americans.

"The problem with your analysis is that it is incorrect," Cain said to an audience amused by his directness. Bloomberg, he said, based its analysis on the wrong assumptions. But he declined to reveal the set of economic data on which his plan was based.

When asked to name the economic experts who drew up his 9-9-9 plan, Cain would name only one: a Rich Lowrie of Cleveland, Ohio, who turns out to be a wealth management strategist for the Wells Fargo Bank. So, one might imagine the plan to be a boon to those who have wealth to manage. (Props to Comedy Central's Indecision site for breaking that story.)

Lowrie, according to his LInkedIn profile, served for three years on the advisory board of Americans For Prosperity, the Tea Party-aligned organization launched by billionaire David Koch, with which Cain is closely linked. Cain's campaign manager is Mark Block, the former state director for the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity who oversaw the group's triumphant efforts in helping to elect Gov. Scott Walker and the Tea Party-allied Republican majority in the Wisconsin legislature, and propelled the campaign of now U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, who unseated Sen. Russ Feingold. (See AlterNet's reporting on Prosperity 101, the secret, Koch-linked worker-indoctrination plan conducted in Wisconsin during the 2010 mid-term election campaign.)

Questioned after the debate by Bloomberg's Margaret Brennan, Cain explained that his 9 percent national sales tax was not regressive for this reason: "If you look at it closely -- we had it evaluated using dynamic analysis -- prices don't go up. Plus, consumers have the option to stretch their dollar because of buying used goods versus new." So there's your new economic plan, Koch style: prices won't go up because I say so, but if they do, just buy the kids' school clothes in the Salvation Army. Srsly.

Michele Bachmann took her own shot at Cain's 9-9-9 plan: "When you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil's in the details." An upside-down 999, of course, is 666 -- the mark of the Beast in the New Testament Book of Revelation, a.k.a., the anti-Christ. Hmmm...naming the black guy in the race the anti-Christ. Seems we've heard that one before. (How much longer, do you think, before she finds a way to suggest that the Hermanator bears the mark of his surname?)

To her credit, Bachmann did call the Cain plan a tax, not a jobs plan, which it is.  But she also said she had spent her whole life in the private sector, even after mentioning that she had been a federal tax attorney.

Return of the 'Death Panel' Bogeyman

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Penn., tied the economic crisis to "the breakdown of the family," which was a skillful way of bringing in his signature social issues to a debate that was limited to a discussion of the economy.

Fielding an attack from Rick Perry on his Massachusetts health-care plan -- which includes a mandate for the purchase of insurance, anathema to the right -- Romney defended his plan with spirit, reminding the crowd of the high rate of uninsured citizens in Texas.

The health-care discussion left an opening to Newt Gingrich to revive the bogeyman of "death panels," saying that the recent protocol issued by the government on prostate screenings would cost lives and was indeed a harbinger of death panels to come. Sarah Palin, he said, was essentially right in her characterization. (Last week, the United States Preventive Services Task Force issued a recommendation that healthy men not be administered the blood test routinely used as a screening tool for prostate cancer because the test does not save lives over all.)

Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who is polling at less than 2 percent, helpfully reminded the crowd that Romney (like himself) is a Mormon, and that Rick Perry is a jerk for having played the Mormon card against Romney at last weekend's Values Voter Summit, the annual anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-liberal fest sponsored by the American Family Association and FRC Action. He did it with a brisk aside when launching into a question to Romney that was unrelated to the controversy. "I promise this won’t be about religion…," Huntsman said. "Sorry about that, Rick.”

Earlier in the day, Huntsman had urged Romney to directly take Perry on about remarks made by Perry endorser Rev. Robert Jeffress about Mormonism being "a cult," and how Romney's membership in said "cult" made him a less desirable candidate than the "genuine Christian" in the race, who he deemed to be Rick Perry.

Huntsman is also the former U.S. ambassador to China, a nation for which Romney had harsh words -- indeed calling for what sounded like an all-out currency war, which would surely create jobs in the U.S.

American leaders, Romney said, had "been played like a fiddle by the Chinese. And the Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, taking our currency and taking our jobs and taking a lot of our future. And I am not willing to let that happen."

Huntsman called for the U.S. and China to find "common ground" on currency and trade issues.

As Good As It Gets?

Unsatisfied with frontrunner Romney, Republican voters have proven fickle with their alternatives. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have both occupied the number two-spot for a time, only to slide down the graph. Now it's Herman Cain's turn. With all eyes on him, he'll now need to answer with more than witty comebacks.

The trick for Romney will be to avoid a mortal wounding in the months leading up to the primary, which both the religious right and the Koch-backed Tea Party crowd -- not to mention an increasingly desperate Rick Perry -- seem primed to deliver.

Of course, there's still time for somebody else to get in. A few days at least, and looking at the state of the current field, there's likely some pooh-bah furiously working his or her Rolodex. Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?


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