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Can a Flat-Taxer Find Success As a Moralist?

Mar 29, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 27 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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If you didn't know better you might think Steve Forbes and Christine Todd Whitman were friends. The two have known each other since their years together at Far Hills Country Day School in the 1950s. In 1993, Forbes did more than almost any other person to help Whitman become governor of New Jersey, first by drafting her winning tax plan, then by promoting her in his magazine and weekly newspapers. Christie Whitman, Forbes wrote at the time, is an emerging "American Margaret Thatcher" with a "truly breathtaking" economic program. After the election, Forbes became a charter member of the new governor's transition team. In 1997, he raised money to help her win a second term.

To the naked eye, Forbes and Whitman look pretty chummy. Not so, say those who run the Forbes 2000 presidential campaign. "She hates us," says one Forbes aide. "They never talk." Not only are Forbes and Whitman no longer friends, the aide confides, they did not, as has been widely reported, grow up next door to each other. "Their houses were about a mile apart," he says.

And so, the implication is, are their politics. Steve Forbes may be a rich, pro-business Republican from New Jersey horse country, those around him frequently explain, but he's no Christie Whitman. In other words, Forbes is not pro-choice. Never has been. Not even a little bit.

The Forbes campaign makes this point so often, so relentlessly, that it almost seems true. The Forbes record is a bit more complicated. Forbes did his best not to talk about social issues during his 1996 campaign, answering virtually every question with reference to his beloved flat tax. When pressed, he took what appeared to be a moderate pro-choice position: against a pro-life amendment to the Constitution, apparently accepting legal abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Various pro-life groups pushed Forbes to clarify his beliefs -- what did he mean, for instance, when he claimed to oppose mandatory federal funding of abortion? -- but he refused. On the subject of abortion, the coordinator of his Iowa campaign told the Boston Globe, Forbes "is not going to capitulate to the right wing."

Many pro-choice Republicans thought they had found an ally. "His position followed Roe a lot," says Ann Stone, a former Forbes supporter who runs Republicans for Choice. The Forbes campaign used Stone's membership list for fund-raising in 1996. According to Stone, many of her members were infuriated when, after the election, Forbes began giving speeches denouncing abortion. "A lot of them have called me to say they've written Forbes and told him where to stick it for changing his position."

But has Forbes changed his position on abortion? The question assumes that Forbes once had a coherent position on the subject. One prominent Washington conservative recalls trying to discuss abortion with Forbes at a cocktail party in 1996. "With no segue, he starts talking about the IMF. He headed straight back to the comfort zone." Brent Bozell, head of the conservative Media Research Center, also talked to Forbes about abortion around this time. While Bozell had better luck -- Forbes didn't mention the World Bank -- it was clear Forbes had spent very little time thinking about the issue. "We talked about everything from partial birth to parental notification," Bozell says. "At the end he paused for a second and said, 'I guess I'm pro-life.'"

These days, the candidate seems much more certain of where he stands. In virtually every public appearance, Forbes condemns abortion and euthanasia and otherwise makes strongly pro-life noises. When Christie Whitman vetoed New Jersey's ban on partial-birth abortion, Forbes ran ads in the state attacking her decision. Forbes still argues that abortion law should be dismantled bit by bit -- before abortion can be abolished entirely, he says, pro-lifers must convince the public that abortion is wrong -- but this time around, he sounds convincing. "A lot of people make that argument because they're cowards," says Bozell. "Forbes means it."

Winning the support of people like Brent Bozell is vital to the Forbes 2000 campaign. Three years ago, under fire from religious conservatives, Forbes lost his temper and said that, in his opinion, the Christian Coalition doesn't represent all Christians. Later, a Coalition official pulled Forbes aside and gave him a much-needed lesson in Republican primary politics. "I said, 'That may be right,'" recalls the official, "'but we represent an awful lot who vote in the Iowa caucuses.'" Forbes got the message. As of last week, the Forbes campaign had hired former Christian Coalition leaders in at least five states to help organize the vote.