The Rogue Candidate

The Embarrassing Midlife Crisis of Steve Forbes, Rich White Guy

 Washington, D.C.-That Malcolm Stevenson 'Steve' Forbes Jr. continues to exist as a presidential candidate is almost an allegory for the worst of American excess and sanctimony. His shoveling load after load of daddy-derived dollars like wheelbarrows of Weimar marks into the maws of media buyers-who provide sustenance for the fiction he is a serious political candidate-makes the nascent Trump candidacy look endearing and modest by comparison. The litany of instances in which he has gone from sounding vaguely enlightened to positively Pentecostal on social issues demonstrates either cretinous conversion or hypocritical desperation for votes; taken in tandem with his largely ignored or forgotten-but brazenly brilliant-end run around political financing regulations, one beholds a degree of guile perhaps unparalleled in the 2000 electoral contest.

"My position has been absolutely consistent on a whole host of critical issues," he said last year. Yet in pursuit of power, he is positively Clintonian in his unabashed reversals. Once upon a time, the Timberfield's scion said Pat Robertson was a "toothy flake" and the Christian Coalition an astigmatic association that spoke only "for its members." Now members of the Coalition have been hired to labor in the vineyards of Forbes 2000, and the candidate speaks as if the most noxious elements of Quayle and Buchanan have been channeled into him via one of the Coalition's snake-handling acolytes. In 1996, the pragmatist said that attempting a total abortion ban would be "a waste of time." Now, the Right Reverend reveals that "the first order of compassion is protecting the unborn," and he yearns for the day when a total abortion ban bill will come to his presidential desk so he can sign it and "rid ourselves of this blight." In 1994, he wrote that the balanced budget amendment "deserves to go nowhere"; in 1996, he revised history on CNN, explaining, "I've always felt we needed a balanced budget."

There are other examples, as well, and how does one rationalize them? There may be a more charitable rationale: mere vote-mongering. "In their late forties," Forbes posited during the last election, "Forbes men's hormones seem to change. Pop started riding motorcycles. I would say running for president qualifies." Running for president as a form of embracing your inner alpha male? There is an undeniable (though still, sadly, patrician) edge to Forbes; as Republican consultant Alex Castellanos once famously said of him, "Nobody wants to get chased down the street by a mad billionaire with a squash racket." (Perhaps Naomi Wolf is needed more urgently as a consultant at the Forbes, rather than Gore, campaign.) Yet, these days, his chasing of votes seems increasingly quixotic; while a trickle of former Quayle and Buchanan supporters have rerouted themselves down the electoral sluice to Forbes-doubtless attracted by the new, bold right-wing rhetoric over the old and more moderate-he still trails in the polls behind Bush and McCain. Some things, apparently, never change: "I am white, a Protestant, an Ivy Leaguer, rich, business-oriented, without practical political experience," the candidate said last time around. "It couldn't be worse, but at least I'd like to be free to fall down on my own arse, without any help from conservatives."

Shake his hand and shake your head: Steve "flip-flop" Forbes for president.
photo: © Adam Nadel
Shake his hand and shake your head: Steve "flip-flop" Forbes for president.

While he may not be hacking it on the hustings, in the realm of campaign finance, Forbes has never had to fear falling on his arse; with a personal fortune of at least half a billion dollars, rattling the tin cup is hardly essential. Yet that hasn't stopped him from exploiting fundraising loopholes that have saved him a bit of money in the past. In fact, Forbes holds a dubious honor previously unawarded in politics: his proto-2000 campaign operated completely outside the realm of campaign finance law.

In 1996, Forbes conjured up a nonprofit corporation, Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity. What commenced as an organization devoted to flacking the flat tax has become, over time, Forbes's bridge to social conservatives; in addition to spending millions advocating Social Security privatization and Medical Savings Accounts, the group has championed the antichoice position on abortion and the prochoice position on schools. Ads featuring Forbes on these issues have afflicted the airwaves over the past few years, particularly in South Carolina, Iowa, Arizona, and New Hampshire-states that just happen to have early but crucial primaries. AHGO has also flooded the Republican faithful's officeholders and activists with faxes and e-mails at crucial junctures in policy debates; after Clinton's January 1998 State of the Union address, money raised by AHGO underwrote a national one-minute response ad featuring none other than AHGO's "honorary chairman," Steve Forbes.

Sound more than a little like the campaign of someone running for president way before election year? Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course; any number of aspirant officeholders have their own PACs that they use to campaign in the off-years, and they're all registered and regulated by the Federal Election Commission. AHGO (now defunct with the advent of Forbes 2000) maintained that what it did was "issues advocacy." Yet it strains credulity to see how AHGO wasn't inextricably linked with the Forbes candidacy, especially as its staffers were all Forbes '96 staffers, and as its offices and phone number (until 1998) were the same as the Forbes '96 campaign. Indeed, speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1998, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican party, Stephen Duprey, simply said, "Everyone knows that AHGO will someday become the Steve Forbes for President campaign."

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