Looking Forward

Why Steve Forbes is a serious candidate


Ordinarily, the last thing I'd choose to write about this month is presidential politics. As I write, the Iowa caucuses are a week away, the New Hampshire primary more than two. As you read, they're history.

Ordinarily, then, I'd stick to what journalists call an "evergreen," a topic that won't go out of date. But the extraordinary candidacy of Steve Forbes demands comment. (Full disclosure: I write a column for Forbes ASAP, a role in which neither I nor my articles have any contact with Steve Forbes.)

One thing's for sure: Whatever I say, I won't look as silly as the people who refused to treat the Forbes campaign seriously. Take the political editors at the Los Angeles Times. Their series on "The GOP Front-Runners" included Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander, but pointedly omitted Forbes. Asked by National Journal's Paul Starobin to explain, political editor David Lauter lamely replied, "If you really don't think that someone is in this thing for the long haul, it's a little misleading to lead your readers into thinking you do….I don't know anyone who really thinks he's going to be the Republican nominee." Unlike, say, Pat Buchanan or the insiders' idea of an outsider, Lamar Alexander?

Forbes is indeed an unlikely presidential contender. He's never held elective office. He's extremely self-effacing. He's a policy wonk who mentions privatizing Social Security in nearly every speech. He's not good looking. He wasn't born in a log cabin to alcoholic, abusive parents, and he didn't flunk any grades. He's always been very, very rich. And though he's run a successful company, and made it even more successful, he isn't an entrepreneur. It is, the critics snipe, really his daddy's company. (Actually, it's his granddaddy's.)

The media establishment hates the very idea of a Forbes campaign. The New Republic's Michael Lewis fawns over the populist bully Morry Taylor, the other self-financing multimillionaire in the Republican race. But he detests the nerdy Forbes. "He's a real person, and he understands economics," a supporter tells Lewis, who comments, "a pair of facts you might not glean from meeting Forbes."

Introducing a Nightline interview with Forbes, Ted Koppel sneers, "You need more credentials to go fishing, drive a cab, or become a plumber than is required in order that you may present yourself as a candidate for the highest elected office in the land." Columnist Charles Krauthammer says it "is a sign of immaturity among conservatives that they're flocking to a complete unknown." Washington Post Outlook Editor Jodie Allen says the Forbes campaign shows "the power of poppycock."

I respect both Allen and Krauthammer, but in this case they haven't got a clue. Forbes is not, as Krauthammer suggests, "a complete unknown." He's been on the rubber-chicken circuit for a decade, giving speeches to like-minded groups (including the Reason Foundation in 1988). He writes a column in a biweekly magazine with a circulation of 765,000 and a total audience of more than 4 million. He and his ideas are famous in both the free market and business communities. That Krauthammer finds him "unknown" tells us more about the circumscribed world of Washington punditry–where people take Lamar Alexander seriously but most couldn't tell you who's running IBM or what Sun Microsystems makes–than it does about Steve Forbes. Allen, a Democrat deficit hawk, just doesn't like tax cuts, and when Forbes talks economics, that's all she hears.

Forbes is for tax cuts, no doubt about that: "a flat tax with a tax cut." But the power of his campaign doesn't come from a gimmick, however appealing. Richard Lugar, after all, supports scrapping the income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax. Phil Gramm has a solid flat-tax plan and, at least until recently, he also had gobs and gobs of money. Alexander has nothing but gimmicks, some of them ideas, some of them–red-and-black shirts, walking across New Hampshire–simply stunts.

No, the flat tax is only part of the Forbes story. Forbes's great strength as a candidate–like that of his opposite, Pat Buchanan–is that he defines a clear vision of how Americans can best shape their future.

Asked by a TV reporter, "What kind of person is Steve Forbes?," TNR's Lewis reports, the unlikely candidate gives an unlikely answer: "He's forward-looking, dynamic, optimistic." Lewis moves on, missing the story.

The answer is telling. Forbes may be forward-looking and optimistic, but dynamic he's not–at least not in the usual sense. Five years ago, when Charles Oliver and I met him to do a REASON interview, he seemed almost too polite to introduce himself: the most self-effacing rich guy I've ever met, a contrast not only to his exuberant father but to the typical corporate executive. He warms up when he talks policy, but when it comes to personal dynamism, Steve Forbes will never be mistaken for Alan Keyes.

When Forbes says he's "dynamic," then, he's talking politics not personality. In post-Cold War America, the political-cultural-intellectual landscape is divided not simply between the familiar left and right but between dynamism and stasis. On the side of dynamism are people who embrace open-ended, evolving social and economic systems and an unknown but incrementally improving future. On the side of stasis are those who want to reverse, or plan, or manipulate change.

With his opposition to economic and social change and his consistent harkening back to an imagined past, Buchanan is the purest static visionary in the Republican field. But he's not really alone. Nearly all our political discourse assumes some sort of static, politically directed future. Until Forbes entered the race, dynamism had no clear advocate, no one articulating a positive vision of why the future would be better with a less-intrusive state.

Forbes can legitimately call himself "dynamic" not because he's a rousing speaker but because he believes in the open-ended future, in the creativity of free people, and in the importance of clear, simple, limited rules within which individuals can shape their own decisions. That's what the flat tax is really all about. And it's no accident that Forbes lists "progress," along with freedom, individual opportunity, and equality before the law among America's defining "ideas and ideals." Nor is it a surprise that he attracts supporters who, according to a CNN poll, believe that government should not favor any particular set of values–the state as neutral referee.

By the usual standards of politics, Forbes is indeed advocating "risky ideas," as Bob Dole's TV commercials put it. Instead of promising to eliminate risk by bureaucratic decree, as most politicians do (deceiving both the public and themselves), Forbes prefers to diversify it down to a manageable level. "The nice thing about an open economy," he told us in 1991, "is that you're not dependent on a handful of people doing something right."

None of this makes Forbes either a down-the-line libertarian–he adamantly opposes drug legalization, for instance, and is squeamish about welfare cuts–or the ideal candidate. He's probably overpromising when he says the flat tax will give us 5 percent annual growth and won't depress home prices. And, as his critics love to point out, running a publishing company doesn't mean you can be CEO of the USA. (Of course, neither does running the Senate Republicans or the Education Department.)

Nevertheless, and regardless of how the rest of his campaign fares, Forbes has pulled off an amazing feat. It's hard to talk dynamism in a political world that expects stasis–right down to urging people to calculate their future taxes based on their present circumstances. And it's even harder to convey optimism about the future without specifying exactly what that future should look like. Forbes has managed to do both.