Yesterday, on July 30, 2020, Herman Cain, a former business executive, candidate for president, and political commentator, very sadly died at the age of 74 after a nearly month-long battle with the Wuhan coronavirus.  He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Gloria Etchison, and his two children, Melanie and Vincent.  He certainly had quite a career and left an impression on the political scene with one of the more memorable, albeit brief, presidential campaigns in recent memory.

When I started the site, I planned to eventually post an article about how some of my friends and I took Mr. Cain’s memorable tax plan from his 2012 run for the White House – “the 9-9-9” plan – and turned it into “999,” a phrase for describing something that is epic generally.  Before I wrote that article, I saw that he had fallen seriously ill from the Wuhan coronavirus, preceding the news of his death today.  On this sad day, I thought it would be good time to remember Mr. Cain’s exciting and entertaining 2012 run for the presidency, how it influenced the political debate, and the phrase that I borrowed from it and continue to use to this very day.

Image of Herman Cain giving a speeck next to a red 9-9-9 added on top of the image. It appears as if Herman Cain is pointing at the 9-9-9.
Modified from photograph by George Skidmore. Original license info:
Gage Skidmore
CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. I modified the image by adding “9-9-9” in red text. My modification is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Following the 2012 Republican Presidential Primaries

In 2011 and 2012, some of my friends and I closely followed the Republican presidential primary and its eclectic cast. Mitt Romney, then the former Governor of Massachusetts and runner-up in the 2008 primaries, served as the weak but durable frontrunner. To be sure, Mr. Romney was not the most entertaining candidate American politics has ever produced, which is an entirely separate issue from his amenability to the office he sought. But his shortcomings in that area were more than made up for by those of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who seemed to vacillate between viewing his campaign as an actual attempt to win the White House and a book tour, as well as by those of then-Congressman Ron Paul, who stayed true to his message that we must end the Fed, and then-Texas Governor Rick Perry, who entered the race on a whim. There was also the brief moment when future President Donald Trump considered entering the fray, but he would, for 2012 at least, stick to reality television. The race did still have surprises in store, however, such as when former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who was coming off losing his Senate seat in decisive fashion six years earlier, unexpectedly emerged late in the pre-contest proceedings as the strongest challenger to Mr. Romney’s eventually successful quest for the nomination.

The Cain Train Arrives at the Station

One member of the cast of characters in 2012 stole the show from the rest.  Prior to the 2012 Republican primary, Herman Cain was a successful albeit not nationally known business executive with no experience in elected office.  He had previously served as president of Godfather’s Pizza, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and CEO of the National Restaurant Organization.  He achieved some political recognition for a question he posted to then-President Bill Clinton in 1994.  Nine years before he ran president, Mr. Cain survived a near-fatal bout with stage IV colon cancer.  He had briefly run for president in 2000 and unsuccessfully for United States Senate in Georgia in 2004.

While other candidates fought over a wide range of issues, both foreign and domestic, Mr. Cain would not let anything or anyone take away from his campaign’s central message:  “9-9-9.”  Mr. Cain touted his 9-9-9 tax plan far and wide, and at every opportunity.  9-9-9 represented Mr. Cain’s plan for a flat 9% income tax, 9% sales tax, and 9% corporate tax.  With this promise to dramatically simplify the tax code and his natural charisma on the stump, Mr. Cain briefly rocketed to the top of the polls, forcing other Republican candidates to address how they too would make the tax code simpler.  Mr. Cain was not the first prominent candidate to propose some form of a flat tax – Steve Forbes had in the Republican primaries in 1996 and 2000 – but he was undoubtedly the most entertaining (Mr. Cain ultimately endorsed Mr. Forbes in 2000 after ending his own brief presidential bid).

Falling Short. Leaving an Impression.

Mr. Cain’s campaign faded after a brief surge, eventually being supplanted by Mr. Gingrich and then Mr. Santorum as Mr. Romney’s top challenger.  He ended his bid for the White House in December 2011, in the midst of declining poll numbers.  However, Mr. Cain, more than any other early departure from the field, left his mark on the race.  He was, according to Pew Research, not only the most covered candidate in the Republican primary field in 2011, but also the third most covered individual in the U.S. media for the year, behind only then-President Barack Obama and former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.  Although his tax plan did not make it into the Republican platform, his simple 9-9-9 plan helped bring the movement to simplify the tax code to the forefront, and it inspired more in-depth plans based on similar central premises in 2016.  While “9-9-9” did not carry Mr. Cain to the nomination, it did contribute to his having one of the most memorable presidential campaigns.

Mr. Cain did not leave politics after 2012, remaining a fixture on the political scene. Mr. Cain started online political projects and remained active in debates. He would, in 2016, become a key endorser for the eventual winner of that election, Mr. Trump. He was briefly nominated by Mr. Trump for a position on the Federal Reserve board, although he withdrew from consideration.

Borrowing and Re-Purposing “999”

Although I would not say that the 9-9-9 plan, in its purest and unaltered form, was the perfect fix to our convoluted tax system (which does need to be simplified and fixed), its simplicity and Mr. Cain’s energetic selling of it left an impression. But rather than focus on its merits as a tax proposal after Mr. Cain’s run, my friends and I borrowed the plan for a different purpose. We eventually co-opted the term “999,” dashes omitted, as an aesthetic replacement for saying that something is “great,” “epic,” or “clutch.” Mr. Cain likely settled on 9-9-9, rather than 12-10-8 or 11-11-10, in part because something about it makes for a catchy and easy-to-remember pitch. So too does 999 serve as the perfect way to describe something that is perfect. It rolls right off the tongue. 999 also signifies something greater – for example on a numerical display limited to three digits, there is nothing greater than 999.

We will keep using the phrase “999,” perhaps here at The New Leaf Journal as well.  Now, more than ever before, I will remember the campaign that added the good phrase to my lexicon. 

Final Thoughts

Mr. Cain was born in Tennessee in 1945, and spent his childhood in Tennessee and Georgia. Although his family was poor in terms of money, Mr. Cain credited his hard-working parents with instilling in him the values and work ethic that he would use to become an American success story. Mr. Cain would, as we know, become a successful businessman and an influential figure on the political state. Regardless of whether one agrees with any or all of his political views, he most certainly lived a full life.

My thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Cain’s friends and family in this difficult time.  May he rest in peace.


May 24, 2024: I wrote a special piece commemorating our 999th New Leaf Journal article and created a new Herman Cain graphic. I replaced the original graphic I used in this article with the new one.