The Green Papers Commentary

The Decline and Fall of Steve Forbes 2000

Monday, February 7, 2000

"The Green Papers" Staff

As I write this, the relatively minor (made more so by the absence of a major effort by New Hampshire GOP victor John McCain) Republican primary in Delaware is about to take place [Tuesday 8 February]. Basically, this primary is a minor skirmish between Texas Governor George W. Bush and magazine publisher Steve Forbes in a state where, four years ago, Forbes had the first of his two primary victories in what turned out, in the end, to be the best week of his first campaign for the Presidency.

This year, Forbes comes to the First State having already gone through the high and the low of his second presidential campaign. On Tuesday 25 January, the day after the Iowa caucuses and the straw poll during the Alaska caucuses, Forbes was on a high with a surprisingly solid second place finish behind then front-runner Bush in the Hawkeye State and a virtual dead heat with the Texan where it is North to the Future. But what a difference a week has made! In Tuesday 1 February's New Hampshire Primary, Forbes was the BIG loser in the John McCain tidal wave that steamrolled over not only Bush but the magazine publisher as well! Whatever momentum Steve Forbes once had coming out of January was quickly gone come February (even the only other remaining GOP presidential contender, Alan Keyes, fared better in the Granite State- even though he finished behind Forbes there- as, with Gary Bauer now knocked out of the race, Keyes becomes the sole candidate of the hard-core sociocultural conservatives) and Forbes now limps into Delaware's GOP balloting- a triumph for him the last time out- a very different candidate than the one who came to the First State four years before.

For what a difference four years has also made. Back in 1996, four days after commentator Pat Buchanan (in HIS second bid for the GOP nomination) had stunned most political observers with his 1 percentage point victory over front-runner Bob Dole in New Hampshire's primary, Steve Forbes (who had come in fourth in the Granite State- behind Lamar Alexander- and, like Alan Keyes this time, benefited from just such a fourth place finish) came to this very same State of Delaware- where his then more moderate sociocultural positions, combined with his flat tax in place of the graduated income tax, appealed to a state in which many corporations are chartered primarily for the state's tax advantages- and handily beat Dole by 5 ˝ percentage points in the First State's winner-take-all primary. Dole- still reeling from his New Hampshire loss- was now on the ropes: a front-runner tainted, much like the situation in which George W. Bush now finds himself (except for the fact that it took two primaries [and a different victor in each] to put Dole in the precarious situation he was in after Saturday 24 February 1996 while the Texas Governor needed to lose only one contest to be in such serious trouble as he is now in).

But then the vagaries of the pre-Convention season we go through every four years to nominate presidential candidates took their toll; the primary/caucus "system" (assuming that term is even applicable to such a series of events as make up the pre-Convention campaign) is a fickle one in which wins are often, in reality, losses and defeat might actually be seen as victory. All eyes turned to Arizona's winner-take-all primary on Tuesday 27 February 1996, three days after Forbes' Delaware victory: if Forbes could take enough votes away from Dole on the more moderate side of the Republican fence, giving the victory in the Grand Canyon State to Pat Buchanan, Bob Dole's quest for the Presidency was probably history. Instead Forbes won Arizona with an enormous expenditure of his vast personal resources; how well I remember the headlines the next day such as "FORBES' 2ND WIN MUDDLES GOP RACE". Except that the race WASN'T muddled! Dole managed to squeeze into a second-place finish in Arizona, 3 percentage points behind Forbes and 2 percentage points ahead of Buchanan; Forbes' knocking Buchanan silly in the Grand Canyon State- in combination with Dole victories in the relatively minor primaries held in both of the Dakotas that same day- saved Bob Dole's presidential aspirations.

Instead, it was to be Buchanan- not Dole- who was now on the ropes and it would also be Buchanan whose campaign would become "toast" as he lost consistently to Dole come "Super Tuesday" a week later; but Forbes was to be "toast" as well as the more moderate Republican votes Forbes had hoped to court (had the much more conservative Buchanan won Arizona and Dole, thus, been forced out) now would go to the more well-known "it's his turn" Dole. Bob Dole had survived Arizona and, a week later, was once again the front-runner seen as the nominee-presumptive and Forbes' one week of victories in Delaware and Arizona in '96 would prove, in the end, to have been rather Pyrrhic ones, though the publisher gamely continued spending his progeny's inheritance all the way to San Diego that Summer.

Forbes' problem this time round is that he has no really strong GOP constituency for himself alone which he can then tap to expand his appeal beyond his base of core supporters. His flat tax is no longer novel: where it is an effective vote-getter, it has long been co-opted by other politicians and in other quarters, where it is not outright discredited, it is still somehow rather passé; his move to the right socioculturally this election cycle, meanwhile, is not going to gain him the true believers who might be enough to keep Alan Keyes in the race until the Republican Convention in Philadelphia this Summer. The novel- if not downright maverick- role Forbes once had four years ago is now being played, and played very well- at least for now, and in a way Forbes could never have played it- by John McCain. Steve Forbes always appears the properly dressed businessman of his magazine's traditional slogan "Capitalist Tool" but- the way the 2000 presidential campaign has gone down so far- he now finds himself all dressed up with no place to go!

Now I don't expect Steve Forbes to drop out over the next fortnight, regardless of what happens in Delaware; the publisher will, of course, press on through at least South Carolina on 19 February and probably some time beyond. However, as in Arizona four years ago, Forbes has to again hope someone is knocked out of the race in order for his campaign to have even a shred of political viability after South Carolina: in this case, Forbes has to hope Governor Bush can beat John McCain in South Carolina and then, assuming McCain fights at least one more battle to try and stay in the fray, best the Arizona Senator in his own home state so that Forbes can become the last remaining viable alternative for the "anybody but Bush" crowd (Alan Keyes being far from a viable alternative- but I suppose self-proclaimed prophets are not only without honor in their own country but without the honor of their country's highest office as well!).

If McCain wins what I have already argued, in previous Commentaries, the Arizona Senator must win, then Forbes' candidacy becomes largely meaningless- something between a rich man's strange hobby and a non sequitur- as the race will then turn into a Bush vs. McCain marathon to the Convention. Thus, whether Bush wins during and just after the Presidents' Day weekend- and, thus, knocks McCain out- or no, Forbes' campaign may very well survive even to next Summer in Philly, but only as more or less that of a nuisance candidate- dogging the front-runner(s) and offering an alternative voice to the inevitable yet having no real chance at the big prize (the Republicans' equivalent of what Jerry Brown was to Bill Clinton in the later stages of the '92 Democratic pre-Convention campaign or what Jesse Jackson was to both Walter Mondale AND Gary Hart in the '84 Democratic primaries and caucuses).

I don't care how much personal wealth he has, Steve Forbes' place in this election cycle can't be a particularly comfortable one: no, it's not necessarily better the second time around.

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