Nine! Nine! Nine!

Why Republicans are having such a hard time dismissing Herman Cain’s goofy tax plan.

Is Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan viable?

Photograph by Spencer Platt.

Now that he’s a top-tier candidate, Herman Cain’s rivals are patting him down, looking for his Achilles’ heel. They think they’ve found it: his “9-9-9 plan.” In Tuesday night’s economy-centric debate, the GOP’s also-rans temporarily stopped eating Cain’s dust to call 9-9-9 not “doable” (Jon Huntsman); a “sales tax” (Rick Santorum); and the Satanic inspiration of the fallen one, Lucifer Morningstar, (Michele Bachmann, roughly paraphrased).

Here’s what 9-9-9 actually is. Seven weeks ago, speaking before a packed house at Hudson’s Barbeque in Lexington, S.C., Cain announced a simple plan to replace the current tax code. Step one: Replace it with a 9 percent income tax, a 9 percent business tax, and a 9 percent sales tax. Step two: After this works, “amidst a backdrop of the economic boom created by the Phase 1 Enhanced Plan,” replace those taxes with a national consumption tax of 23 percent.

You can see why Cain’s rivals are sputtering, disbelieving, and uncomprehending about this. They may try, as Santorum has tried, to describe how 9-9-9 will raise taxes for millions of people, and wait for Republican voters to digest that news and reject Cain. The evidence will back them up. The politics might not. Cain, who’s been pitching some version of this plan for seven years, is taking advantage of a deep-running conservative angst about taxes. Conservatives want taxes to be simple. They want them to be fair. If other Republicans didn’t see the 9-9-9 craze coming, they haven’t been paying attention.

Every 16 years, every time a rebuilt Republican Party is trying to unseat a Democratic president, it has to deal with some existential new tax reform concept. In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on a supply-side tax cut devised by economists that Washington didn’t respect and that was derided by the man who eventually became Reagan’s vice president. In 1995, magazine tycoon Steve Forbes entered the Republican primaries and spent about $60 million to push one message: The country should have a flat tax rate, no deductions, on income above $36,000. “The flat tax is simply a means to an end to enable people to keep more of what they earn,” he said, “remove barriers to investment, so the economy can grow.” This is basically what Cain is promising now.

Reagan won. Forbes didn’t. Cain probably won’t win. And yet all three plans evolved from similar-looking piles of primordial goop. Reagan’s tax plan followed the 1978 taxpayer’s revolt in California. Forbes’ plan—admittedly, a version of an idea that had been kicking around think tanks and the Jerry Brown campaign—followed on the 1994 GOP landslide. Cain’s plan, a remix of the 12-year-old “Fair Tax,” is taking off for the same reason he became a viable candidate in the first place: The Tea Party, having taken over the Republican Party, wants to keep the revolution going.

That’s why Republicans are having some trouble talking the idea back into the cellar. It doesn’t really matter that the idea came from accountant and Cain adviser Rich Lowrie, and not from a trained economist. Re-watch Tuesday’s debate: This is an electorate that cheers when candidates talk about the crimes of Ben Bernanke. This is a campaign in which Mitt Romney (J.D., MBA, Harvard) attacks Barack Obama for listening to “the Harvard faculty lounge.” Republican voters don’t hear “untrained economist” and think “lousy plan.”

There’s more: They don’t hear “sales tax” and immediately think they’re going to get treated unfairly. All year, conservative voters have insisted that the tax code is unfair because not enough people pay taxes. In a post-debate interview on Bloomberg TV, right after she’d attacked Cain’s plan, Bachmann repeated her belief that “everybody” should pay taxes, and that it was unfair that 47 percent of Americans ended up paying no net federal income tax. That’s a strange sort of populist sentiment in the GOP right now, seen most recently in the WeArethe53% Tumblr of personal stories that RedState.com’s Erick Erickson set up to mock Occupy Wall Street activists.

The Republican voters who love 9-9-9 believe the same things that the old Forbes devotees believed. They believe that other Americans are paying no net income taxes, and they don’t think it’s fair. They know how much time they have to spend figuring out all of their deductions, and so a simple code—Forbes promised a tax form that could fit on a postcard—would solve their problem. Cain got a handle on that sentiment early, using it in this ad for his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia in 2004. “The United States tax code,” he said. “It’s an 8-million-word mess!”

Cain’s rivals have to engage in a little bit of deprogramming. They must convince voters who think that the tax code is stacked against them of the truth: That complicated code is wasting some time while saving a lot of money. After the debate, NBC News’ Domenico Montanaro checked one of Cain’s claims—that a family pulling in $50,000 currently pays $10,000 in taxes. As Cain would say, the problem with that analysis is that it’s incorrect. With the grab bag of deductions left in place by Bush and Obama reforms, that family pays $766 in taxes. According to the professional rain-on-parade economist Bruce Bartlett, the first stage of 9-9-9 would do what it sounds like—it would increase the cost of living for poor people by 9 percent. Either Cain is right, and the supercharged economy would bail them out, or Cain is wrong, and they’ll be worse off than ever.

So how has Cain gotten so far on this idea?

“It’s a rejection of redistributionist tax policy,” says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, who is doing his gentle best to point out that 9-9-9’s a bad idea. “No one has done the calculations, so people are reacting viscerally to the idea. A single rate flat tax is a very attractive thing.”

It’s attractive because it tells conservative voters what they already believe: Tax the free-loaders, simplify the forms, and the rest of the problems take care of themselves. To take Cain down, Republicans have to blow up the anti-tax arguments of 30 years.