Herman Cain has built his unlikely but surging presidential campaign around the marketability of his economic plan – 9-9-9, and his status as an outsider. But this is not the first time the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has ever run for office. Cain sought the Republican nomination for senate in Georgia in 2004. And he lost, miserably to now-Sen. Johnny Isakson.
ABC News’ Jonathan Karl sat down with Isakson in a Subway Series interview and talked about that 2004 race.
What is the secret to beating Herman Cain?
“Well, the secret to getting elected to public office is persistence,” Isakson said. “I lost my first race in 1974. So the fact that you lost or won your first race isn’t an indicator. It’s your persistence and your tenacity, and Herman’s got both of those. So you shouldn’t underestimate Herman Cain. He’s an articulate speaker, he has a business background and he’s tenacious. He’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
Isakson, 66, played modest when Karl pointed out, “But you trounced him. I mean, you basically doubled him.” Isakson, who got twice as many votes as Cain in that primary race, pointed to his electoral experience, the very thing Cain brags that he lacks.
“I’d lost before. I’d won a lot of times before. I’d been around the hoop before. So I had some experience, and it was very beneficial. And I had a record. And, fortunately, the people of Georgia liked that record,” Isakson said.
Despite his victory in 2004, Isakson said he still has great respect for Cain and is not surprised to see him fighting for the Republican nomination.
“He is no shrinking violet. He’s a very smart man, a very articulate guy,” Isakson said. “When it came to some tough adversity after that election, you know he got liver cancer and colon cancer, he survived that. Started talk radio in Atlanta on the Neal Boortz program. Neal’s in the Hall of Fame now in terms of broadcasters. So, Herman’s worked hard, he’s caught a tailwind, and he’s got a good tailwind going right now. And we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
Republicans will debate tonight in Nevada and the format allows Cain to shine, according to Isakson.
“When you go to a debate with Herman, if you’re not armed, you’re in trouble because Herman is articulate,” Isakson said, pointing to their seven or eight debates in 2004. “That’s number one. Number two, I knew he was tenacious. And I knew the minute he called me that evening, one of the things I’ll tell you about Herman Cain, that night when we won, it was a primary with another competitor in the race, and we won without a runoff, which was a relief for me. But the first call I got congratulating me was Herman Cain. So he’s got the class to match with the enthusiasm. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Isakson did not, however, endorse the infamous 9-9-9 plan, which would cut income and corporate tax rates to 9 percent as well as institute a new 9 percent sales tax. Isakson said he’s nervous that politicians in Washington would take those taxes and make them grow.
“I haven’t studied it. I will have to tell you, any time you mix a sales tax and an income tax without some limitation in the future, you run the risk of adding another arrow in the quiver of taxation. On the same token, you know, productivity taxation, which is what our progressive income tax is all about, has slowly but surely weeded out a lot of people from paying any taxes at all. And a consumption tax does that so it has merit to be considered,” he said.
Isakson would rather take a more measured approach to reforming the tax code.
“Let’s look at it holistically and let’s figure out what’s right for America. I think putting plans on the table makes a lot of sense. We ought to have Simpson-Bowles on the table. We ought to have 9-9-9 on the table. We ought to have reform of the tax code like we did in 1986 on the table. And then, finally, do it in a comprehensive way,” he said.
Cain is the man of the moment in the Republican race, but there are actually two Georgians in the race, which puts Isakson in something of a bind when it comes to an endorsement.
Which would he choose? Isakson wouldn’t take the bait. He said the voters should decide.
“I know they’re both smart good guys, they’re both different. Newt [Gingrich] obviously is a great thinker. Herman’s a great doer,” he said. “They’re both very articulate. Why try to handicap against one of your favorite sons when one of them might be the nominee?”