The withdrawal of Steve Forbes as a presidential candidate has set off a spate of self-evaluation on the right. Leading the pack in drawing sweeping conclusions from Forbes's failure is Tod Lindberg. He says that the event signals the end of idealistic, populist conservatism, and the renewal of pragmatic professionalism in politics. He's half right, half wrong, and completely misses the best explanation: Forbes began with a muddled message and reinvented himself one too many times.
You might think that these would be the best of times for the publisher of "The Capitalist Tool." None of the other candidates can talk intelligently about web commerce or the centrality of entrepreneurship in the economic boom. At a time when investing and stock picking has becoming radically democratized, only Forbes among the candidates knew enough to talk about finance and economics, and it is these areas where Forbes had the most credibility. Forbes might have been seen as the man most likely to protect prosperity by keeping the government from wrecking it.
What went wrong? Consider Lindberg's case. "Mr. Forbes was the last of the true believers," in a time when true believers are not in demand. "He offered himself to the Republican primary electorate as the living embodiment of the conservative cause, in the hope that conservatives nationwide would be drawn to him because of the strength of his ideas." Lindberg goes on to argue that this was a vain hope, rooted in a charming idealism but not in the practicalities of politics or the history of American statesmanship.
Lindberg thinks that Forbes's key error was believing that a magazine publisher with no political experience could become president — that his ideas alone would cut through the professionalization of the political process. He thought he could dispense with other niceties like developing a viable party machine, winning the hearts of decision-makers at the grass roots, and schmoozing with the voters one at a time, and instead develop a mass populist following that would sweep all else before it.
Lindberg's got one point here. It's true that many people are in politics for power and money, and nothing more. But others are just cut out for the job. Many work their way up, from local politics to successively higher office, honing their skills along the way. It is a special breed who thrives on the details: voter lists, polling, knowing every important person in the relevant constituency, etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with this: in a stateless society, these people would be community leaders and private legal arbiters.
Think of a man like Ron Paul of Texas, who has never cast an unprincipled vote. He is driven by ideals but also has an uncanny political instinct. He enjoys being around people, genuinely likes voters, and is very eager to convince them that he is the right man for the job. He never compromises but neither does he set out to deliberately irritate his constituents. When he votes against transfer programs that benefit them, he affectionately explains why these programs are part of the problem.
Voters don't always agree with him — he is, after all, a libertarian radical who votes against nearly all government spending, regulation, and foreign intervention — but a majority in his district admire him as a statesman. He wants and seeks their support for his ideals, and part of his pitch is that voters would do well to share in his mission. As a result, he keeps winning, thereby dumbfounding every political expert in the country. He is a principled libertarian and a natural-born statesman, in the best sense of that term.
Lindberg is right to note that it is naive to enter politics in the belief that "politicking" can be dispensed with, which is the typical approach of many disgruntled candidates, not all of whom are from 3rd parties. These underdogs could care less about laying the groundwork for a successful campaign. They forge ahead on a wing and prayer, putting little thought into the reality that running for office is a hard job requiring special skills and interests. Yes, ideas matter, but they are not all that matter: detailed knowledge, personal relationships, and hard work ("paying your dues") play a crucial role in political success.
But these observations are not enough to explain why Forbes fell apart. After all, he did develop something of a machine, and he heavily invested in political pros to help him. Some might say that this was part of the problem: he seemed overly coached and even canned in his speaking style. The eggheaded charm of his 1996 campaign began to appear tediously wooden by 1999.
Consider what happened in 1996. He was a one-note samba of the flat tax, but his opponents for the nomination successfully argued that his plan would actually end up raising taxes on the middle class. How so? His proposed repeal of the mortgage-interest deduction and the charitable-giving deduction were iron-clad tax increases. Then there was the likelihood that effective rates on many lower-middle-income taxpayers would be raised. This message stuck, and it tarred the only plank in his platform.
Once this was exposed, Forbes didn't back off, but rather insisted he would flatten taxes anyway. He argued, for example, that in a post-deduction world, mortgage interest rates themselves would fall to make up the difference. But this level of abstraction never gets you very far in a campaign. Voters have learned over time that if a politician promises 99 tax cuts and 1 tax increase, it will be the 1 that gets through the process, while the 99 will enter into the annals of broken political promises.
Forbes learned something of a lesson from 1996, and in 1999 began emphasizing that his tax program would make tax rates both flatter and lower. This was a huge change, one designed to head-off criticism of his program from the right. But thanks to broken Republican promises in the 1994 Congress, the vogue of having a complete campaign tax blueprint had passed by 1996, and hardly anyone cared about the details of his tax plan this time around.
The other lesson that he drew from 1996 concerned the use of religion. Here is where he tripped up most disastrously. Last time, Forbes took a lot of heat for his refusal to endorse the centralizing Human Life Amendment to the US Constitution. Instead, he favored incremental changes — a position which is now the mainstream view in the GOP (and, in any case, no conservative should be pushing new national laws for anything). In the midst of the 1996 fight, a campaign worker blasted the Christian Coalition for working against him, even uttering a smear that seemed to be directed against the Christian right in general.
That remark did more than permanently harm Forbes. It set off a frenzy of misdirected ideological activity on the right, in which people concerned about economic issues (symbolized by Forbes) were said to be narrowly materialistic and unconcerned about the supposedly all-important cultural issues. For the first time in decades, openly anti-capitalistic rhetoric became common on the Christian right, with the Family Research Council suggesting that anyone concerned with tax cuts or free enterprise was probably a member of the dangerous secularist element now taking over the GOP. Even Pat Buchanan succumbed and joined the anti-market parade.
Of course the whole affair was ridiculous. There is nothing incompatible between faith and economic freedom. American Christianity has lived side by side with a vibrant commercial culture; and contrary to the media caricature, most of the political agenda of the religious right has consisted of getting the government out of culture rather than trying to impose a uniform doctrine or moral code on everyone else. Inveighing against commercial society, and calling for a crackdown on individual liberty, is actually a departure for a movement that is, at its root, convinced that capitalist enterprise has a solid moral foundation.
In any case, the conventional wisdom in the aftermath of Forbes's 1996 campaign was that he had been destroyed in a retaliatory act by the Christian right. It was a wild exaggeration, but come 1999, Forbes was determined to do something about it. His make-over consisted of attempting to convince religious voters, not only that he was not hostile to issues of family and faith, but that he was actually more committed to the Christian right causes than any other candidate!
Despite many months of campaigning on this theme, Forbes was never able to pull it off. He never won the trust of Christian activists, and meanwhile, those who supported him for his libertarian positions in 1996 developed a feeling that Forbes has lost his moorings. The man best positioned to make the case for cutting government and keeping the regulators' paws off the web found himself talking about issues that are never even addressed in his magazine. The worst of it was that he showed himself to be easily pushed around by the conventional media analysis of his last campaign.
Finally, there is the issue of war and peace. Forbes looks like a mild-mannered enthusiast for free enterprise, but when he had the chance to comment on US relations with Iraq and Serbia, he revealed himself to be a reliable, even foam-flecked, member of the War Party. In this election, unlike any previous one for fifty years, the pro-peace sector of the GOP is becoming something of a force to be reckoned with, and now this sector wrote off Forbes as just another warmonger.
In the end, Forbes was campaigning without a constituency and without an unwavering message other than that he wanted to be president. Contra Lindberg, it was precisely Forbes's lack of idealism — an unwavering belief in and support for freedom, trade, low taxes, and peace — that led to his undoing. If McCain now wins the nomination, however, it won't be long before Lindberg and his neocon friends turn on a dime to celebrate the return of idealism to politics — the idealism of the state, which means "national greatness," government worship, and war anytime they decided to hold one.
February 15, 2000