The Magazine

STEVE FORBES GETS A LIFE

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.


Forbes has also spent a good part of the last three years honing other aspects of his moral message. In 1996, Forbes made the case that a better tax system could solve just about all of America's problems, including moral decay. "There is no real difference between values and economics," he told one Iowa audience (to what, one imagines, was limited applause). A year later, in an article written for Policy Review and widely disseminated by his non-profit organization, Forbes had decided that "capitalism and democracy alone are not enough to sustain a healthy, vibrant society." What can bring America back from the abyss? This time, Forbes pointed not to the flat tax, but to the temperance movement of the nineteenth century -- a model, he wrote, of what can happen when citizens undergo "spiritual renewal and religious dedication."


With rhetoric like this, it's not surprising that Forbes has become popular with social conservatives, or that so many of his staff -- from communications director Greg Mueller to his traveling press secretary, K. B. Forbes (no relation) -- once worked for Pat Buchanan. Nor is it a shock that Rich Tafel, head of the pro-gay Log Cabin Republicans, recently described Forbes as "the most dangerous" of the Republican candidates. Rival campaigns dismiss this support as bought and paid for. Forbes is rumored to be offering $ 1,000 a month to Republican leaders in every country in Iowa. Advance staff on the Forbes campaign are reputed to be making $ 100,000 a year. One political strategist in South Carolina, it is whispered in Washington, was offered $ 45,000 a month to organize for Forbes.


As it turns out, none of these rumors seems to be true (as future FEC disclosure forms will likely demonstrate). Forbes does pay his staff well, but not extravagantly. Unlike Ross Perot -- a tightwad who bragged about being a high roller -- Forbes clearly hates the idea of being perceived as profligate. He often boasts of his thrifty Scottish roots, and even claims to make some of his own fund-raising calls. In the end, though, it's clear that most of the $ 45 million or so Forbes plans to spend in the primaries will come from Forbes himself.


Where will that money go? Up to $ 2 million will likely be spent rounding up support for Forbes in the Ames straw poll in Iowa next August. (Forbes has been in Iowa at least once a month, every month for the past two years.) Some will go to grass-roots organizing in other states. Most will be spent on advertising. Many Republicans in Washington are still bitter at Forbes for the anti-Dole ads he ran in the 1996 primary. The Forbes campaign -- while heatedly denying its advertising had anything to do with Dole's loss -- is unapologetic about the spots. For one thing, they worked. At this point four years ago, the Forbes campaign points out, Bob Dole had over 50 percent of the Republican vote in all the primary states and was leading Clinton by double digits nationally. Dole's support, it turned out, had a hollow core. The Forbes campaign is hoping the same will be true of George W. Bush. Which is where the ads come in. If other Republicans "think the primary is going to be polite," says one Forbes strategist, "they are sadly mistaken."


But what about Forbes himself? How will his support hold up? Everyone agrees that as a self-financed candidate, Forbes can stay in the race as long as anyone, certainly until March. And money isn't all he has going for him. Forbes has a well-organized ground operation. He has a solid economic plan, a new values platform, and -- his staff seems particularly enthusiastic about this improvement -- a state of the art, slightly less dorky haircut. He even has new glasses. Unfortunately, Forbes still lacks charisma.


Rusty Paul, a Forbes backer and the outgoing chairman of the Georgia Republican party, puts it this way: "The one challenge that Steve has in this campaign is lighting some enthusiasm among some people out there. A lot of people say to me, 'I love Steve, but I wish he was more energetic.'" It's a sensitive point, and Paul searches for a way to explain it. "In politics," he says finally, "you need to have some political theater. Steve has the right ideas, but we need to get some passion behind him. If he can get some passion we've got a shot. If he can't, I'm concerned."


There is cause for concern. In person, Forbes is far more animated than his robotic caricature. He blinks. He modulates the pitch and volume of his voice. (His staff concedes that Forbes finally took Michael Deaver's advice and spent some time with a speech coach.) He even chuckles from time to time. The problem is that except when he talks about baseball statistics or mystery novels, Forbes never seems very excited. After a while you might come to the conclusion that he's more excited about baseball statistics and mystery novels than he is about politics. Accurate or not, this is not an impression an aspiring presidential candidate wants to leave with audiences in Iowa or New Hampshire.


Forbes may never be an inspiring speaker or thrilling flesh-presser, but his campaign staff is betting he won't have to be. Forbes plans to take his message outside the shopping malls and Rotary Clubs of the primary states and onto the Internet. Forbes2000.com, the campaign's official Web site, is huge, sophisticated, and packed with better-than-real-life photos of Steve Forbes. Campaign strategists immodestly predict that the Web site will become "the Amazon.com of the presidential race," that it will bring together "the largest grass-roots organization in the history of representative democracy." Plus, boasts one of the technicians who designed it, the site has "way cool interfaces."


Way cool or not, Forbes2000.com does have some interesting features. Visitors to the site are asked to become "on-line volunteers," and are then hit up for the e-mail addresses of their friends -- each of whom in turn receives a pitch letter from the Forbes campaign. Volunteers who sign up numerous friends receive recognition as cyber ward-heelers for voting blocs ranging in size from e-precincts to e-cities and e-regions. Those who recruit with particular vigor win prizes and become members of the "e-National Committee." The firm that designed the Forbes2000.com site, Hensley Segal Rentschler of Cincinnati, has promised the campaign at least 500,000 on-line volunteers by the end of the primary season.


It's hard to know how many volunteers the site will produce, though it will certainly provide entertainment for bored white-collar workers. The campaign plans to add games to the site, each with a trademark twist: A flat-tax game, for instance. Or a Sisyphean Beltway Establishment game, where the more players win, the less they are allowed to keep.


The best feature of all, though, is certain to be the "news" coverage. The Forbes campaign plans to hire a full-time reporter and photographer to cover the candidate's activities on the campaign trail. Dispatches will be posted regularly to the Web site, along with photos of Forbes in action -- kissing babies, talking taxes with farmers, displaying his knowledge of retail food prices at supermarkets. "We plan to build our own propriety news agency on-line," says one Forbes staffer excitedly. "Like CNN and MSNBC." Except much, much more amusing.




Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.