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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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."