Second wind for Forbes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 October, 1997, 12:00am

In the aftermath of last year's presidential race, Newsweek magazine suggested 'the Forbes campaign deserves little more than a footnote in the history of American politics'.

The words reflected the mood of most political pundits last November. If a multi-millionaire such as Malcolm 'Steve' Forbes could spend US$30 million (about HK$234 million) of his own cash and not come close to winning his party's nomination, why would anyone give him a chance four years later? Mr Forbes, publisher of the eponymous financial magazine and supply-side-economics guru par excellence, did indeed deserve a historical footnote at the very least - if only for injecting a splash of underdog colour into the greyest of Republican nomination battles.

But if everyone assumed he would stoically write off his $30 million loss and limp back to his New Jersey estate, they appear to have misjudged the man.

A well-connected member of a conservative Republican foundation in Washington dispelled my own doubts last week.

When I asked him who he thought was the likeliest Republican nominee for the 2000 presidential race, he hesitated only a couple of seconds before naming Mr Forbes.

Washington insiders often like to throw such fastballs in political discussions: their shock value tends to give whoever is listening the impression that the speaker must be gifted with that most prized of Washington possessions, inside knowledge.

And they can always count on the fact that if their prediction is way off beam, it will have been long forgotten a couple of lunches later.

But the Forbes prediction, while still going against current received wisdom in the nation's capital, has the advantage of being feasible. One has only to count the increase in favourable mentions of him in the mainstream press to realise that, far from being a mere footnote to history, Mr Forbes is already positioning himself for another shot in 2000.

Not only is he doing it far earlier than last time round - when his late entry into the race put him at a distinct disadvantage - but he is doing it far earlier than everyone else.

Historically, the odds against a successful Forbes run are just as substantial as they were in 1995. Then, even the man himself could barely suppress a laugh when a Reaganite, conservative economist, Jude Wanniski, first urged a presidential run from him. True, Mr Forbes was a well-connected party loyalist, with certain notches on his belt, among whom chairing the board of Radio Free Europe at the height of the Cold War, and chairing a conservative think-tank, Empower America.

But the last businessman to pole-vault over the usual congressional or other political offices straight into a party's presidential nomination was Wendell Willkie, in 1940. The voting public may like a candidate's message on the hustings or in TV commercials, but any sense that he and his party lack the experience to handle the tricky arena of international politics is more than enough to send their votes elsewhere.

Mr Forbes' lack of public office was underscored by his own admitted lack of charisma, an inability to talk off the cuff on unrehearsed subjects and - perhaps worst of all - a constant moronic, nervous grin.

The right candidate for the White House has to be a solid mix of man and message, and the Forbes message - that the economy needed a new, flat-rate tax system - was too narrow and obscure to appeal to those Americans who are not chief executive officers.

Mr Forbes has also been hampered by the fact that he looks like the right kind of candidate for the Republican Party of the 1930s rather than the 90s. His Ivy League-educated, French-chateau persona would, ironically, pass muster among the new Democrats but is at odds with a Republican Party now dominated by the Christian conservative values of the new South.

Although a healthy ratio of east coast establishment types still operate in the party, they have been ousted from the leadership in Congress and win a hearing only if they talk the same language on family values and other moral issues.

What makes the new Forbes more formidable than the old is that he has grasped this and immediately taken steps to ingratiate himself with the right-wingers whose phone calls he would never have returned before.

In the 1996 race, Mr Forbes was one of the chief enemies of the Christian Coalition, the two-million-strong conservative group that exerts perhaps more influence on party thinking than any other single organisation. Mr Forbes' crime was to be too liberal on social issues. Indeed, he refused to be drawn on them in debate, leading one anti-abortion campaigner to lament that trying to get Mr Forbes to state his position was 'like trying to nail a jellyfish to a wall'.

Those days are over. Mr Forbes, realising that, next time round, the support of the Christian Coalition will be crucial, has mended fences by addressing its recent conference - to a surprisingly warm reception - and by espousing a new platform of moral values wherever he speaks. This about-face will not only broaden his base significantly but help him lose the image of a one-trick pony with nothing but flat-rate tax in his saddle-bag.

He has also started his own organisation - Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity - which already has 57,000 members, and which is helping, with efficient public relations, to project Mr Forbes' name and ideas long before the official race gets under way.

There is, of course, that little matter of campaign cash in Mr Forbes' favour. Having one's own nest egg to draw on while his opponents are scrambling all over the country begging for contributions can only be a bonus - particularly since the campaign finance scandal has had the effect of shrinking the volume of donations to both parties.

Finally, whom does he have to beat for the nomination? Mentioned so far are Texas Governor George Bush junior, last year's vice-presidential running mate Jack Kemp, and once-derided vice-president Dan Quayle - all of whom have much more experience than Mr Forbes but none of whom strikes fear into opponents' hearts.

President Forbes? It is not an easy picture to paint, even if American politics has seen stranger episodes. But, whatever happens in the next three years, his historical footnote is certain to be longer and more important than most of us believed.