Zeroing in on the Forbes market

February 03, 1996|By Daniel Berger

"HAPPY WARRIOR'' is a phrase from Wordsworth imposed by Alfred E. Smith's speech-writer on Franklin D. Roosevelt to describe Smith in 1924 and repeated to greater notice in 1928.

From 1932 on, Roosevelt was running for president himself and the phrase stuck to him. It conveys a zest for the fray, a certain thick skin, an exuberance.

Ronald Reagan was the happy warrior of the 1980s. Bill Clinton has a bit of it. The happy warrior of this 1996 Republican primary campaign is Steve Forbes.

He brings a buoyancy and good nature to the hustings that the snarling meanies who thought they were contesting for the nomination among themselves all lack.

At first, Mr. Forbes was making fools of everyone but Bob Dole. Those others had been cultivating the PACs, building organizations and buffing up positions for years. Then this supposed amateur breezed in with a bag of money.

Now he threatens Mr. Dole. Within the Republican Party, he has revived supply side theory without being so conservative in other matters. Outside, the big gainer is Bill Clinton, whose November opposition is being destroyed by a man who, by conventional thinking, could never win.

Usual wisdom is that an outsider neophyte will flop when media find him worth scrutinizing. No one resembling Mr. Forbes has won a major-party nomination since 1940, when Wendell L. Willkie, the ''barefoot boy from Wall Street,'' got the Republican nod.The independent Ross Perot of 1992 comes somewhat to mind.

Technically, what the Forbes bid represents is the primacy of money to buy public attention over the traditional need to build organizations and cultivate grass roots. Success would be a precedent for candidates of wealth or of great appeal to well-funded causes or interests.

What's good for No. 1

The real joy of Mr. Forbes is that he has spent more than $15 million on a single-minded program to reduce his own taxes.

He crusades for the flat tax on earned income and, incidentally, for ending taxation of investment (unearned, in tax jargon) income.

He remains Reaganite and positive, refusing to be distracted. He leaves the low road to his attack ads, as though they had nothing to do with him.

Mr. Forbes cannot hope to recoup in tax reductions what he is spending in their quest. And few would agree that the real trouble with this country is that Mr. Forbes does not get to keep enough of his own income.

Mr. Forbes says his cause is growth, hope and opportunity for the country. So it is, at least for a clearly defined segment.

His father, the late Malcolm S. Forbes, flaunted an opulent

lifestyle, flying cafe society to a party in Morocco and sending his empty yacht to Baltimore to be ogled.

Aside from enjoying this to the hilt, the elder Forbes was the astute proprietor of an inherited magazine preserving its niche from bigger competitors. Notoriety helped.

His son, Malcolm S. ''Steve'' Forbes Jr., is doing the same, only exhibiting different appetites. He is a deeply committed and private family man whose thing isn't parties but the Grand Old Party.

Forbes is a slick consumer magazine for investors. Everything in it is richly illustrated, hype-headlined and short. Its 765,000 subscribers may be assumed to be somewhat wealthy and not young.

A tax reform that reduced their marginal rate to 17 percent and abolished dividend, interest and capital-gains taxes would give them more to play with, and more interest in his magazine.

So what if Mr. Forbes is only trying to have fun, feed his ego, float ideas and promote his magazine by pandering to its market?

If by some miscalculation he won the presidency and had to do the job, it would serve him right.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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