Politics on parade

February 08, 1996|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- Guess who introduced legislation for a flat tax back in 1982? A serious 19 percent flat tax with no exemptions for home mortgages or for charity, with lesser rates for business income? It wasn't that Forbes fellow. It was a congressman from Monterey, California, an expert on budget economics -- Leon Panetta. Now, of course, he is chief of staff for President Clinton. Could it be such a nutty idea?

* * * Washington insiders are consumed by the search for the identit ''Anonymous,'' the author who wrote the novel ''Primary Colors.'' The book is based on Mr. Clinton's 1992 campaign for the presidency. It's a good piece of fiction, as most all concede.

Those who have praised it include important Clinton allies. Mandy Grunwald, former campaign adviser, said this on ''Larry King Live:'' ''It's a great book. . . . A lot of it is true to life. . . . It's only eerie that it is so accurate, some of it.'' The White House's George Stephanopoulos, whose fictionalized persona is a main character of the book, called it ''a great read,'' and according to Newsweek, ''The president's aide is startled by how his character's thoughts -- from wonderment at his boss' skills to disgust with his pandering -- mirror his own.''

But what does the book say? It describes a politically gifted Southern governor whose gargantuan ability to feel your pain is matched by his appetite for sex -- with any convenient skirt. It is set in a milieu thick with sex, drugs and obscenity. One plot line clearly intimates that the fictional governor had sex with a now-pregnant teen-age black girl.

The professional spin

A work of fiction proves nothing unless it is lent authenticity by those who were on site. This particular work of fiction sets a backdrop that makes Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and the tales of Arkansas state troopers quite credible. So why have some Clinton insiders, professional spinners, tended to offer confirmation of ambiance to what had been vigorously denied by the president?

3' Maybe they are not so professional.

* * * Listen to the establishment press trying to follow Steve Forbes is a joke. He doesn't have a chance. He is buying the election. He is a bore. He has peaked. He has no experience.

And all the while, Mr. Forbes' poll numbers have gone up. Matched against President Clinton, he runs better than any other Republican. Why?

Mr. Forbes decided to run because he felt that an important part of the political dialogue was not being heard. It's hard to put a label on it, but it is a view that looks toward opportunity economics, cultural moderation, American optimism and toughness on social issues like crime and welfare. On the Democratic side, it has been articulated by the Democratic Leadership Council and backed -- rhetorically -- by Bill Clinton. Among Republicans, the Tough Moderate banner was hoisted prominently by the Conservative Opportunity Society and more recently by Empower America, whose chairman was Steve Forbes.

It's a movement, it's serious stuff, and perhaps the presidential press corps will catch on. The straight conservatives may catch on that Mr. Forbes' moderate stand on abortion is a strength among all voters and probably even among voters in GOP primaries.

Could Mr. Forbes win? Not alone. But there's a movement there. Play a game and consider a government formed of friendlies: a Forbes-Powell ticket, or a Forbes-Cheney ticket with the non-vice president serving as secretary of state. Think of some Empower America stars in high places: Jack Kemp at Treasury, Jeane Kirkpatrick at Defense, Bill Bennett as secretary for Virtue or Health and Human Services, Vin Weber as chief of staff -- working to shape and humanize the congressional leadership of Conservative Opportunity Society stars Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.

* * * The Clinton administration and the Congress deserve a salute for the newly passed telecommunications law. It should offer more information and entertainment. Alas, it also gives away about $70 billion worth of digital-television ''spectrum'' to big broadcast companies. For this reason, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole threatened to derail it. Instead, the topic has been temporarily set aside. It could still be a great issue for Mr. Dole this year. It's ''corporate welfare'' for America's most important industry and probably the only one that reflexively supports Democrats.

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Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist.

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