The legacy of the Forbes campaign

March 18, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - If there is any legacy of the Steve Forbes candidacy, it is that it demonstrated with stark clarity the flaws in the political system. He showed that some guy who had inherited $450 million could simply take a notion and bend a presidential campaign all out of shape.

Mr. Forbes will be credited with showing that the voters like candidates who offer a note of optimism in the political debate. And he deserves some credit for going to court and overriding the plan of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and his cronies to keep the New York primary a closed shop.

But Mr. Forbes did far more mischief than anything else. His mind-boggling early spending on television commercials in Iowa and New Hampshire coupled with his mindless 17 percent flat tax made him enough of a factor in the opinion polls that he could not be ignored as easily as other candidates with no realistic chance of being nominated.

The principal result of his spending, however, was to throw a monkey wrench into the process of competition among those with political credentials that might have allowed them to be chosen.

Although he advertised himself as the candidate of ''hope, growth and opportunity,'' Mr. Forbes had his greatest effect on the campaign by savaging, first, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and then former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

The Forbes commercials scorning Mr. Dole as the ''Washington politician'' drove the senator's positives down and his negatives up steadily in the weeks before the Iowa precinct caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Indeed, the campaign was so negative that it finally backfired on Mr. Forbes and dropped him into fourth place in both states.

But even as an also-ran, he could spend enough to win in Delaware, where he had no active competition, and in Arizona, where Senator Dole made the mistake of avoiding a debate and Mr. Alexander could not afford to compete.

One result was that Senator Dole finally achieved the nomination only after being badly scarred. And Mr. Alexander never managed to get a clear shot at the senator or a hearing for his argument that he was the candidate of the next generation with the best chance of defeating President Clinton in November.

No one would argue, of course, that Mr. Dole's obvious flaws as a candidate are solely a product of the Forbes assault. Nor that Mr. Alexander necessarily would have been a serious challenger to him. His campaign always seemed too contrived and clever for many Republicans. But the point is that Mr. Alexander was one of the rivals the party might ultimately have accepted as its nominee if he had developed a more compelling case for himself.

None of this suggests that only politicians are entitled to run for presidential nominations or that people with personal wealth should be disqualified from the competition. But something needs to be done to bridge the gulf between someone who can spend $30 million of his own money and conventional candidates who must go through the debilitating ordeal of raising their campaign funds in contributions of $1,000 or less.

Warmed-over idea

Mr. Forbes had no history of involvement in public affairs. And his key idea was a warmed-over version of the supply-side economics that argues that deficits don't matter if you cut taxes enough, which is precisely the thinking behind Reaganomics and the $4 trillion federal debt it has produced.

His ability to influence the process was a comment on the weakness of the field of more conventional Republican candidates. If, for example, Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle had run for the nomination, a rich magazine publisher might have found it far more difficult to find a constituency even in the opinion polls.

Steve Forbes saw an opening and exploited it for a few months. And by winning in Delaware and Arizona, he accomplished far more than anyone expected when he announced his intention to run. But in the end, he was more a mischief-maker than a serious political leader.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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