Can we talk?

Steve Forbes takes a sharp right turn just as the Republican Party is looking for a centrist path.

Published May 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There were plenty of quirky and outlandish things about Steve Forbes' first presidential campaign back in 1996. One of them was his New York society pal, comedian Joan Rivers. She was on hand when Forbes announced his candidacy and campaigned for him as an unpaid volunteer that fall and winter. That was until late February, when she got into trouble on a Phoenix radio talk show for making a joke about Pat Buchanan, who was then dueling it out with Forbes in the Arizona primary. "I went to a party for Buchanan," Rivers quipped, "and a Nazi jumped out of the cake." When a caller protested, she shot back, "Tell me what you call someone who is anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-gay. This man is anti-everything."

No candidate can stand by a supporter who calls his opponent a Nazi. But one suspects that the pre-presidential Steve Forbes might have gotten a kick out of that crack. By the time he first ran for president in 1996 Forbes had been writing columns in Forbes, the family magazine, for more than 20 years. And he had expressed a persistent suspicion of social conservatives in the Republican Party. In 1988 he called Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson a "toothy flake." And early in the 1996 campaign Forbes signaled that his mix of economic conservatism and social liberalism would set him apart from the rest of the GOP field. But by January 1996 Forbes had begun to realize that he would have to shed his social-liberal-moneyed Republican image if he was going to have any chance of securing the Republican nomination. So Rivers got the boot.

Thus began the most stunning and improbable political transformation in recent American history: Steve Forbes' metamorphosis from the optimistic, tax-cutting rich guy of yesteryear to the dour and sour culture warrior of today. It began with the pummeling Forbes took from Christian conservatives on the eve of the Iowa caucus in 1996. An unlikely alliance between the Bob Dole campaign and Christian conservative activists loosely organized by then-Christian Coalition executive director, Ralph Reed, hit Forbes with a barrage of what people in the business call "push-polls" -- attack phone calls disguised to appear like polling questions. Callers ask phone respondents who they plan to vote for after asking them questions like: Did you know Steve Forbes has a Mapplethorpe photograph displayed on his yacht? Did you know Steve Forbes is pro-abortion? Did you know Steve Forbes supported his father's "gay lifestyle?" And so on.

For a time it seemed Forbes would hang tough against the criticism. His Iowa campaign coordinator told the Boston Globe that Forbes was "not going to capitulate to the right wing." But after a few rough weeks Forbes decided that if he couldn't beat the religious right, he'd join them. Today the same Steve Forbes who once championed militant country-club Republicanism can't say enough about banning partial birth abortion, the sanctity of the family, and the awful state of what he now calls this "spiritually bankrupt generation."

To many, Forbes' shift on the social issue agenda just shows that he'll do or say anything to win. But the reality is more complex. In fact, Forbes gained one advantage from the slipshod nature of his first campaign: It made it hard for his opponents to pin down just what his positions were on issues like abortion. For instance, while the Forbes campaign did court pro-choice groups early in 1996, those in a position to know doubted whether he had any position on the issue at all. It wasn't strategic vagueness. The issue just wasn't something Forbes cared about. If anything, his diffidence had less to do with his politics than with his class and upbringing. For men and women of Forbes' social class -- the genteel wealth and established families of the Eastern seaboard -- issues as deeply personal as abortion simply are not topics for impassioned debate, and are certainly not the political issues you get deeply involved with. As one Forbes staffer from the 1996 campaign told me, "I don't think it ever occurred to him that these sorts of issues mattered. He comes from a moderate Christian [background]. Everyone is entitled to live as they please. There's a greater acceptance of a lot of things. I just don't think it ever occurred to him [that these issues would come up]."

There may even be a kernel of principle bundled up in Forbes' cynicism. The same staffer from Forbes' 1996 campaign told me that Forbes' social-issue flip-flops probably had less to do with abortion as such than with another issue that cuts much closer to home: the politics of homosexuality. Soon after the 1990 death of Forbes' father, Malcolm S. Forbes, the elder Forbes was revealed to have been bisexual. That link and the younger Forbes' apparent tolerance of his father's sexual orientation was seized upon by social conservatives in 1996, and those attacks hurt Forbes deeply. "It all started with the gays-in-the-military questions. And they saw he didn't handle it well," the former staffer continued. "And then that led into the whole issue of tolerance of the gay lifestyle."

Forbes' increasingly strident rhetoric on the abortion issue was in large part intended to cover him on this other, more sensitive question. It wasn't that Forbes didn't believe what he was saying on issues like abortion, the former staffer reasoned. "It's more that he grabbed on to those issues where he felt he could agree with [the social conservative] position. And then he took the offensive with passion, hoping that then they wouldn't pay as much attention to those issues where his positions are more fuzzy, or where he's more vulnerable."

So where does Forbes stand on gay rights today? Forbes is on record opposing gay marriage. But Forbes' former staffer -- who calls his old boss "one of the most principled people I know" -- told me he was sure Forbes would never change his position on gays in the military or his generally progressive stance on gay rights. And sure enough, he was right. Forbes' campaign staffers clearly prefer not to discuss the subject of gay rights at all. But when pressed, they concede that Forbes still supports President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.

Whatever mix of considerations first sent Forbes down the road to pro-life politics, he hasn't looked back. What is surprising is just how relatively successful he's been. Forbes' main backers and political operatives now come primarily from the socially conservative wing of the party. A contingent of Pat Buchanan's high-level staffers from 1996 now work for Forbes. But it's not just campaign flacks and mid-level staffers Forbes has been able to attract to his cause. He has also been able to enlist an impressive array of veteran activists with impeccable right-wing credentials -- names like Brent Bozell, Jr., Richard Viguerie, and Morton Blackwell.

"I am 100% absolutely, thoroughly convinced of [Forbes'] pro-life bona fides," Bozell recently told me. "I spoke with Steve a lot in 1996. Initially he seemed pro-choice. But as I talked to him and discussed it point by point he turned out to be right-to-life on all the issues. I think it's very much a study in progress."

Bozell's views are shared by other social conservatives. Over the last 18 months especially, Forbes has taken high-profile positions on a number of questions dear to the hearts of social conservatives. One was the Republican National Committee's vote on whether to give campaign money to Republicans who support abortion rights. Even anti-abortion stalwarts like Henry Hyde recognized that this was a politically suicidal idea, and opposed it. But not Forbes.

In his effort to burnish his anti-abortion image, Forbes even turned on his old friend and political associate, New Jersey governor Christie Whitman. Forbes and Whitman grew up as close neighbors in Somerset County, New Jersey. Forbes played a key role in Whitman's successful race for governor in 1993, co-authoring the across-the-board tax cut plan that helped propel Whitman to victory. But in 1997 Forbes turned on Whitman for her veto of a bill that would have outlawed so-called "partial-birth abortions" in New Jersey. Forbes called the procedure a "euphemism for infanticide" and funded a raft of anti-Whitman radio ads. That stunt did more than just help Forbes with Christian conservatives; his money also helped social conservatives dim the political prospects of a rising moderate voice within the GOP.

Commitment like that has done wonders to bring around conservatives like Bozell. He tells the story of a Forbes' speech he attended before a group of business leaders in Dallas. "I expected he wouldn't even mention the abortion issue, " Bozell told me. "But he made it the cornerstone of the speech. He's walking the walk, not just talking the talk. I would challenge anyone to name someone who has done more on this issue in the last three years."

The Forbes people, of course, have all sorts of clever explanations for why their candidate really hasn't changed any of his positions. But his flip-flops are so stark and undeniable that you have to ask whether Forbes is hopelessly cynical or just hadn't thought through any of the issues before he decided to run for president the first time. The truth, it turns out, is a mix of inexperience and opportunism.

Forbes got into the 1996 campaign with little sense that he'd be forced to talk about anything beside his beloved flat tax. The same lack of political experience and subtlety that led him into that mistake now has him overcompensating with a sometimes-comical embrace of the social conservative agenda.

There is no shortage of views on Forbes' first campaign, and most are quite strong. Many social liberals in the GOP, for instance, now view Forbes as the archetype of the cutthroat businessman in politics. After he realized he couldn't sell himself as a Wall Street Republican, one formerly friendly GOP activist recently told me, Forbes just decided to "reinvent the product" and craft a new message aimed at social conservatives. Others take a more charitable view. But the common thread in almost every account of the campaign is the image of a candidate who was totally in over his head. Forbes got into the race because there was no candidate espousing his brand of supply-side economics orthodoxy -- a deficiency that seemed particularly acute after Jack Kemp decided not to get into the race. But he hit the ground running with an aggressive and often brutally negative media campaign with little apparent sense of the repercussions the attacks would have on his long-time political friends or for his own campaign.

Jude Wanniski is a veteran evangelist of supply-side doctrine and friend of Forbes who helped convince Forbes to get in the race back in 1996. But like many former Forbes supporters, Wanniski now expresses disenchantment with the flailing and impulsive methods Forbes used in the 1996 race. "Steve has shown once again that he's an amateur when it comes to this kind of thing," he recently told me, "popping out of the birthday cake on day one and throwing mud balls at everybody."

Many Republicans still blame the attack ads Forbes ran against Dole for softening Dole up for his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton later that year. Those ads were the work of Carter Wrenn and Tom Ellis, two North Carolina political consultants who rose to fame with Jesse Helms and are known for notoriously brass-knuckle campaign tactics. There's no rule against rough play in GOP primaries, but for many, Forbes played a bit too rough -- especially after it became clear he couldn't beat Dole but only wound him for the general election. One faction in the campaign was more concerned about the broader interests of the Republican Party and getting Forbes to play nice with rival candidates; another thought Forbes could really win if he just stuck to his pummeling attacks on Bob Dole.

Regardless of whom you believe, Forbes clearly had no real sense of what he'd gotten himself into. One sign of just what kind of campaign Forbes was running is that his own campaign manager, Bill Dal Col, reportedly opened up a secret back channel to Bob Dole's campaign manager Scott Reed, feeding Reed their daily polling data as well as heads-ups about what new ads the Forbes campaign had coming out. In other words, according to two separate sources within the 1996 campaign, Forbes' own campaign manager was operating as a mole for the man who was then his main opponent.

The Republican right now seems inclined to overlook Forbes' political inexperience and ideological shape-shifting because the end result -- at least for now -- suits their ends. But in the process, Forbes has alienated many of the social liberals who first flocked to his campaign in 1996. For these folks Forbes' turnabout has caused no end of bitterness. Rich Tafel, head of the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay Republicans, recently said that "Forbes is the most dangerous [candidate] for two reasons. One, he has a lot of money, and two, he clearly has no principles."

The irony is that if Forbes was trying to court the right to give himself a better shot at the nomination, it has clearly backfired. Back in 1996 he got crucified in Iowa for trying to take on the Christian right. But in 2000 every serious contender for the Republican nomination is trying to soft-sell the abortion issue and push some form of George W. Bush's non-divisive, "compassionate conservatism."

"It's too bad," says Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice, who worked with Forbes early in the 1996 campaign cycle. "I think Steve's instincts were correct back in 1996."

What's most disconcerting about Forbes today is watching him try to piece together some workable amalgam of his earlier supply-side mantra and the religious right's fire and brimstone. Forbes used to tell audiences there was no limit to what Americans could accomplish if we just lowered taxes. We'll all get rich! Let the good times roll! And so forth. In his new campaign speech Forbes tries to stitch the two agendas together with bizarre and perversely contorted results: Our society is corrupt, he tells his audiences. We've lost our way. All is doom. But if we can just stop partial birth abortion and pass a flat tax, then the sky's the limit. A new era will dawn. Let the good times roll!

Like so much about the Forbes campaign, it just doesn't fit. And thus the paradox. Forbes may have zigged when he should have zagged -- jumping on the Christian conservative bandwagon just when the party started looking for a kinder, gentler face. His hysterical ranting about abortion may have nixed whatever chances he might once have had of getting the Republican nomination. But missing the boat on the changes within the GOP over the last four years is exactly what has made Forbes so successful with the right. When everyone is running away from the Christian conservative agenda, Forbes is with them come hell or high water. Whether it's supporting the pro-life agenda, opposing euthanasia, or supporting school prayer, Forbes is there for them early and often.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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