For many, Steve Forbes' withdrawal from the GOP presidential pack on Thursday was long overdue. The chattering classes — liberals mostly, but some notable conservatives, as well — dismissed the multimillionaire publisher's two longshot campaigns for the Oval Office as ego-driven, extravagant political sideshows. But for those who care about ideas and issues, Forbes' exit is lamentable.
Forbes challenged the conventional wisdom of the media and Washington political establishments from the outset. In 1996, when most of the political world considered Bob Dole's nomination a fait accompli, Forbes decided to step up and talk about ideas. No one ever would argue that Forbes talked about ideas beautifully, like Ronald Reagan did. But it was enough for someone to talk about ideas at all. In that, Forbes and Reagan have something in common.
First among Forbes' ideas, of course, is the flat tax. Most polls show that Americans do not care about tax cuts anymore — or, perhaps more accurately, most Americans tend to disbelieve the parties when they discuss tax cuts — so politicians tend not to talk about them very much, or very seriously. And yet it is also true that political candidates can talk about a flat tax today in a way that would have gotten them laughed off the stage a decade ago. Why?
Like Reagan, Forbes did not read the polls as an agenda-setter, but rather as an opportunity to make his case. He went to Iowa in '96 with an upbeat message that highlighted low taxes, Social Security reform, and letting parents choose the schools their children attend. In a few months, Iowans began to rank tax reform among their top concerns, much to the amazement of political professionals.
After his unsuccessful bid, Forbes somehow avoided getting mired in the standard Washington debate about who's up and who's down. He simply took his message of freedom to the people. He talked issues and roused voters — exactly what Washington does not want: a vigilant citizenry.
When Forbes picked up last year where he left off in 1996, his delivery had improved a little, but his message had not changed a bit. "There is not one living American who believes in this [tax] code," he told an audience in LeMars, Iowa last month. "Who do these people think are in charge of America--we the people, or the Washington political culture that defines reality?"
As Forbes put it, the number one obstacle to tax cuts "is a culture that knows instinctively that major tax simplification and major tax cuts mean a reduction in their power. The blunt truth is they'd rather have more power and less revenue, than more revenue and less power."
Forbes understood that, at bottom, all the debates in America — about tax cuts, Social Security, education, even the federal budget — are moral arguments. They are arguments about whether Americans trust in freedom and the individual or Washington power and the bureaucrat. They are, in short, arguments rooted in the very principles on which America was built, principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitutions.
At best, those principles tend to be taken for granted today. Often they are controversial. Forbes voiced support last fall for a New Jersey bill that would have required public school children to recite a 56-word passage from the Declaration of Independence each morning.
"The Declaration of Independence guides us and goads us," he said during a rally at the Trenton War Memorial in November. "What you do here will be a model for the rest of the nation. Here is a great way to get people to understand how great this nation is." Few political candidates talk that way, much less understand what it is they are saying.
The race is now down to two men, George W. Bush and John McCain. Few Americans could name what they believe — or what Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley believe, for that matter — except perhaps something or other about reform and big money. The media is more interested in the horse race of politics. When the Washington Post published a story last fall headlined "Forbes Reveals Little but His Ideas," it wasn't intended as a compliment. In an age in which politics is routinely driven by slippery polls and debased by spin and scandal, what ought to be an asset is considered a liability.
Deep down, Steve Forbes knows he is not as charismatic as his friend, former vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp. But he does have one thing that too many American politicians lack: The courage to believe that ideas matter, that principles are worth having, and that they can transform America for the better.