Predictions about the GOP's next nominee deserve about as much faith as sworn statements by President Clinton. In recent months, however, it has become clear that the top tier of contenders will include Steve Forbes. Two years before the presidential primaries of 2000, Forbes has been outpacing his rivals with an impressive schedule of speeches, television appearances, and radio ads.
In one sure sign that Forbes has become a household figure, his name recently came up in an argument for an anti-cloning bill. A Democratic state legislator in New Hampshire said to the Manchester Union-Leader, "Do we want to have 10,000 Steve Forbes running around?"
Forbes's emergence is remarkable. Every president from Washington to Clinton has held either elective office or a high-level appointment such as a generalship. Apart from his stint on the Board for International Broadcasting, Forbes lacks government experience. Still, he does pass one key test: Like all Republican nominees between 1968 and 1996 except for Ford, he has already lost a bid for the White House. GOP primary voters like their candidates bloodied and humbled.
Forbes understands that any potential GOP nominee has to navigate the Republican Bermuda Triangle: the party's fractious coalition of libertarians, social conservatives, and office-holders. That's hard to do, and even at this early stage, his positions on abortion and drugs have alienated some elements of his libertarian base. But Forbes is no simple trimmer. Main Street Republicans fret about his forthright positions on issues such as Social Security and affirmative action, fearing that Democrats will brand him--and the party--as "extremist."
One label that people seldom associate with Steve Forbes is "daredevil." And yet he has indeed been taking riskier positions than George W. Bush, Lamar Alexander, and other top contenders. There are two possible explanations. One is that he's a sheltered political naif who just doesn't understand the trouble he's going to get into. The other is that he's a shrewd political leader who is firm in his beliefs and confident of his ability to change people's minds.
Either way, he's come much further than anyone expected a couple of years ago.
The Special Olympics Smile
Forbes suffered from a late entry into the 1996 nomination campaign. Dole had already cornered the support of the blue-haired ladies who do the grunt work of primaries and caucuses, so Forbes had to compensate by waging an air war. His commercials rapidly pumped up his poll numbers, which collapsed just as quickly when the other candidates counterattacked.
In the early weeks, his stump style ranged from wooden to robotic. New Republic reporter Michael Lewis offered this cruel but telling account of how Forbes reacted to applause: "A few years back there was a television commercial for the Special Olympics that concluded with a retarded boy bursting through the tape at the finish line and breaking into a joyous, heart-tugging smile. Forbes now wears exactly the same expression. He has a Special Olympics smile."
Other observers dismissed him as a rich dabbler--Michael Huffington minus Arianna. But after Dole clinched the nomination, Forbes confounded the skeptics. He didn't skulk away like Huffington, or go into full-metal-wacko mode like Perot. He stayed in the arena, learning from his own missteps, and adapting techniques from political comebacks of the past.
Since the summer of 1996, Forbes has been walking the old Nixon trail, campaigning for GOP candidates and picking up political IOUs. In February of this year, for instance, he went to Richmond and praised Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore's initiative to repeal the state's hated car tax: "The governor has proved that you can marry power to perspective." In an interview in these pages ("Happy Warrior," February 1997), anti-tax activist Grover Norquist observed: "Forbes is helping people. Sometimes by helping other people you help yourself."
As Reagan did after leaving the California governorship, Forbes has set up his own political committee: Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity. Among other things, AHGO sends out blast e-mails and maintains an impressive Web site (www.ahgo.org). Forbes has also started daily radio commentaries, available in RealAudio on the AHGO site. By coincidence, Forbes's radio producer is the man who produced Reagan's broadcasts in the 1970s.
Forbes is improving as a public speaker. At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference held in Biloxi, Mississippi, this February, he delivered many of his lines with simple humor and a natural-sounding inflection. "And so even if you had trouble with math or arithmetic when you were in school, which of course none of you did--See, I'm learning to pander...." The aside got a good laugh, and he responded with a graceful smile, not one of the "Special Olympics" variety.
In May 1997, he gave the commencement address at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, California. He concluded with words that warmed the hearts of professors weary of student grammar: "Just remember, it's not who you know; it's whom you know." Then he did a couple of things that previous commencement speakers had not done. During the distribution of diplomas, he stood up and shook hands with every graduate: a small touch, but a pleasant, unexpected one. After the ceremony, he stayed around for more than an hour to pose for snapshots and chat with anybody who wanted to talk with him. (He gained from comparison with the previous year's speaker, the imperious Vernon Jordan. After giving a harshly partisan speech praising racial preferences and hinting that Republicans were bigots, Jordan did not deign to mingle with the proles. Maybe he was eager to return to his job-referral service.)
Though he is getting better on stage, Forbes still has work to do. Too often, even when he is speaking off the cuff, he sounds as if he is reading a text for the first time. For one thing, he keeps committing the beginner's mistake of pronouncing the indefinite article a with a long-a sound ("ay"). At a New Hampshire town hall meeting, he said: "The IRS abuses...are ay symptom of ay corruptingly complex code."