I was confidently explaining at lunch that there are two viable scenarios for the GOP primary. Either party elites start clearly signaling that Rick Perry is the viable alternative to the ideologically unacceptable Mitt Romney, or else party elites start clearly signaling that Mitt Romney is the electable alternative to the amateur hour circus. Either way, that’s your outcome. And yet hear comes a Dave Weigel item in which Haley Barbour and Paul Ryan both praise Herman Cain’s 9–9–9 plan. In other words, a direct contradiction to what I was anticipating.
Weigel observes that the 9–9–9 plan is, in essence, just a simplistic and gimmicky version of what’s become orthodox conservative tax policy — the middle class and the working poor will pay more, the rich will pay less. That’s true. But it’s still an interesting move as a matter of party politics. Now that Cain is surging in the polls is exactly the time I’d be expecting leaders like Barbour and Ryan to raise cautionary flags around the guy — you might enjoy his speeches, but we probably shouldn’t be nominating him — not praising the depth of his policy thinking. My assumption remains that the Barbours and Ryans of the world will reconsider this soon and start sending strong signals for either Perry or Romney. But today, at least, was a bad day for my thinking about how this primary will play out.