Forbes ends Quixotic quest


WASHINGTON -- It has been apparent for months, perhaps years, that Steve Forbes needed a friend. He needed someone, a peer not on his payroll, who would tell him, Steve, my friend, you are becoming a joke. You are never going to win the Republican nomination for president, no matter how much you spend.

Instead, the magazine publisher has been surrounded by political consultants spending his money lavishly on their own salaries and commissions on television commercials. It was not in their self-interest to tell Mr. Forbes he had neither the personality nor the policy proposals to electrify voters.

So, for five years now, Steve Forbes has thrown good money after bad -- $80 million or more by some estimates -- chasing a goal that was never realistic.

And, along the way, he has distorted the political process in ways he did not intend.

Mr. Forbes is not the first American to get the idea he could be president without a shred of evidence that it was a practical idea. Even elected officials of long experience are capable of such self-delusion, as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah demonstrated in the Republican competition this year.

In his case, Mr. Forbes also was encouraged four years ago by the Republican advocates of supply-side economics, a theory that apparently will not die just because there is no evidence to nourish it.

The critical element, however, was that Mr. Forbes has apparently limitless amounts of money he has been willing to lavish on an ego trip. It soon became clear to the press that he could not be totally ignored, however skimpy his credentials or pale his appeal to other Americans.

He could buy enough television advertising time to become a factor in the campaign, so he had to be covered. Every time there was a debate, there he was up there with the big guys.

In New Hampshire four years ago Mr. Forbes enjoyed a brief vogue. Here was this odd-looking rich guy going around trashing the Internal Revenue Service and promising a tax return so simplified you could "fill it out on a post card and mail it in."

It sounded great and for a week or two he appeared to be a potentially serious factor in the primary equation.

But voters gradually came to realize Mr. Forbes was an aberration on whom a vote would be wasted. His flat-tax plan did not stand up to closer examination, and heaven knows he didn't have any other credentials.

Mr. Forbes did have an effect on the New Hampshire outcome in 1996, although largely a mischievous one. His saturation campaign of television commercials attacking the front-runner, Bob Dole, in the last two weeks drove up the negatives of both Messrs. Dole and Forbes -- and allowed Pat Buchanan to win the primary. That was a blow to Mr. Dole's image from which the former Senate Republican leader never recovered.

You also could make a rational case that the votes drained off to Mr. Forbes in a distant fourth place finish might have gone to Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, and lifted him above Dole. In that case Mr. Alexander might well have been the Republican around whom the party rallied to block Mr. Buchanan.

Among those who came to believe this theory was Mr. Alexander himself. In fact, that might-have-been moment in 1996 kept the Tennessee Republican in the 2000 race far longer than he should have remained.

As a practical matter, the Mr. Forbes campaign of 2000 never gained the attention of his first time around. He could be a player only in situations in which the money could buy the organizers and the buses to get supporters to a straw vote or precinct caucus.

Moreover, Mr. Forbes was undermining his own image as a different kind of candidate. By suddenly espousing opposition to abortion rights, he was making a crude appeal to the religious fundamentalists and conceding that his tax plan alone was not enough to put him in the White House.

In the end, Mr. Forbes will be remembered not as a businessman with a good idea but as a rich guy who proved how pernicious money can be in politics. It was his only credential and it wasn't enough.

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

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.