While leading the National Restaurant Association, Herman Cain served as the industry’s lobbyist-in-chief, leading the charge against laws that could harm the food service business. One of his signature causes: stopping stricter drunk driving laws.
When Cain took over as CEO of the NRA in 1996, anti-drunk driving groups were leading a campaign to lower the blood alcohol limit for a DUI to .08 across the country: the equivalent for a 170 pound-man of about five beers in two hours. The majority of states used a .10 limit as their standard, which advocates argued was an insufficiently tough deterrent and left plenty of still-dangerous drivers on the road.
Enter the restaurant industry, whose members with liquor licenses faced diminished business as a result of the changes. Led by Cain, they lobbied hard against .08 changes at the state and federal level, claiming that research showed little improvement in states that had made the switch already.
Cain himself took to the pages of his local Omaha World-Herald in 1998, where Godfather’s Pizza is headquartered, to argue with the paper’s editorial board against efforts to impose a federal law.
“The problem is not the responsible drinker,” Cain wrote in one letter to the editor.”It is the alcohol - abuser who gets behind the wheel of a car. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, two-thirds of all alcohol-related fatalities are caused by drivers with a BAC of 0.15 or higher.”
MADD Vice President Diane Riibe responded with her own op-ed.
“Mr. Cain suggests going after the ‘alcohol abuser’ rather than the ‘responsible drinker,’” she wrote. “In 1996, 17,126 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes. More than 3,700 people were killed in crashes in which the drivers’ blood-alcohol levels were under 0.10 percent - Nebraska’s limit. Does Mr. Cain think that ‘responsible drinkers’ killed those 3,700 people?”
This prompted an angry response from Cain, who took offense at Riibe for impugning his industry’s motives.
“It’s a shame that an organization that has done so much to save lives resorts to personal attacks and accuses the other side of using fudged numbers and having ill intentions,” he wrote. “MADD should channel its energy toward alcohol abusers, not people who respectfully and politely disagree with MADD.”
The NRA claimed vindication the next year when a report by the nonpartisan General Accounting Office determined that several studies cited to demonstrate the effectiveness of .08 laws relied on flawed methodology. But the report didn’t exactly shoot down the .08 idea either, concluding that it “can be an important component of a state’s overall highway-safety program, but a 0.08 BAC law alone is not a ‘silver bullet.’”
It was good enough for Congress at least, which sent a federal .08 law to President Clinton for his signature with strong bipartisan support in 2000. It’s now the limit in all 50 states.
Riibe, who is still an anti-drunk driving activist today with Project Extra Mile, told TPM that he law would have passed much sooner without the restaurant industry’s interference.
“The industry fought hard and consistently to make sure it never happened,” Riibe said over the phone. “It took a number of years to get it because of the opposition.”
A spokesman for Cain did not respond to requests for comment on the candidate’s current position.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.