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Republican presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain talk during a break in their debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Oct. 11, 2011. (ADAM HUNGER/REUTERS)
Republican presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain talk during a break in their debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Oct. 11, 2011. (ADAM HUNGER/REUTERS)

Helpful hint to Republicans: Go bionic (you've got the $6-million) Add to ...

Watching the Republican candidates debate on Tuesday night, I kept thinking about the opening credits to The Six Million Dollar Man, in which astronaut Steve Austin crashes to Earth “barely alive” and is rebuilt.

“Gentleman, we have the technology,” the voiceover says, as scientists appear to implant something like the innards of an alarm clock into Austin's lower arm.

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If only in the interest of political sportsmanship, I found myself hoping for a similar intervention that would rebuild the Republican Party – stronger, faster and able to produce one viable candidate before next November's election.

The long, slow descent of the Republicans, which led to the crash upon that moodily lit stage on Tuesday evening in New Hampshire, can be traced to the moment John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. Ms. Palin formally announced last week that she wasn't seeking the Republican nomination – although it feels wrong to use the political lexicon when discussing Ms. Palin. It's less as if she's no longer seeking the Republican nomination, and more as if she has been cancelled.

Sadly, the hunger for the joyful anti-intellectualism that brought Ms. Palin so much attention remains tarred to the Republicans, and the task of spouting the kind of no-nonsense, makes-no-sense rhetoric she specializes in has, it seems, been passed onto Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain.

The man's no slouch. During an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Mr. Cain answered a question as to how he would “cope with ‘gotcha' questions” by saying, “When they ask me who's the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say, ‘You know, I don't know. Do you know?' And then I'm going to say, ‘How's that going to create one job?' ”

Frankly, give me a few more years and I might support any policy proposal that isn't chosen based on how immediately comprehensible it is to a fifth grader. Eventually, an American candidate might be able to win my support for building a death ray on the moon to terrorize innocent nations under the cover of an experiment in quantum chromodynamics, or organizing complex hostage negotiations in 12 languages in a diabolical attempt to extort capital to invest in massive baby-otter detention centres. I'll just be relieved that scientists are involved, as well as experts in foreign relations, and zoologists. Someone might have to pick up a new roll of paper for the adding machine.

I'd consider this a victory (sorry, sweet otters!) because I lose heart when I hear Mr. Cain defend his economic 9-9-9 plan to a somewhat dumbstruck Mitt Romney (who has emerged as the front-runner basically by standing still) with the words, “Can you name all 59 points in your 169-page plan?” and then read that this boosted Mr. Cain in the polls.

Would an economic haiku be the best plan, then? Will Republicans pick a winner based on whose plan uses the smallest amount of ink? Is toner that big a line item in the U.S. federal budget?

Mr. Cain's plan is indeed simple: a 9-per-cent income tax, a 9-per-cent business tax and a 9-per-cent sales tax. Eventually, he would replace all those taxes with a national consumption tax of 23 per cent. At first glance, a flat tax can seem fair, but, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, nearly half of all U.S. households currently pay no federal income tax. These are almost entirely low-income earners, often the elderly. The 9-9-9 plan would broaden the tax base – to include America's most vulnerable people. Income-taxed at 9 per cent, they would then be sales-taxed again at 9 per cent. The beauty of the symmetry of these numbers (both nines!) might be lost on this demographic at that point.

The 9-9-9 proposal would eliminate the payroll and capital-gains tax that currently fund Social Security and Medicare. Corporations wouldn't pay a tax on dividends and, of course, the plan lowers corporate taxes to 9 pert cent from 35 per cent, a devastating drop in tax revenue.

And therein lies the problem: A flat tax would have to be a lot higher to work. Try 30 per cent.

Little else was offered during the debate beyond some sloganeering, an “I want to go to war with China” from Rick Santorum and a gratuitous mention of death panels from Newt Gingrich. Michele Bachmann, whose ability to read the national mood rivals that of a tree stump, complained that the banks are overregulated.

Written on signs, their ideas would be ridiculed. One might almost say, as has been said of another, larger crowd this week, that the problem with that gathering of Republican candidates is that they have no coherent solutions, ideas or list of demands.

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