Forbes turns the Republican race into a battle
The corn stubble from last fall's Iowa harvest is buried in snow whipped by an icy prairie wind. But presidential candidate Phil Gramm's handlers have pinpointed the political grassroots he seeks on this
occasion—less than three weeks away from a crucial electoral test—in a white frame farmhouse a 20-minute drive from Cedar Rapids and up a lane shin-deep in snowdrifts. The visit is listed on Gramm’s itinerary as a kitchen table media event, so three TV crews and a dozen other reporters stamp snow into the home of Laura and Mike Steffeck, “undecided Republicans,” and their four small children.
Discussion—actually in the dining room,
with coffee and banana bread on a lace tablecloth—is strained by the media jam. The children slither away as Gramm holds up a chart to show how the Steffecks would gain from his budget-balancing plan. “If I am president, the federal government is going to spend less and families are going to spend more” is his punch line. “After all, you earn it.” As their guests straggle out into the drifts, the Steffecks say they are impressed but still undecided.
The table talk (“Most people make their budget decisions right at their kitchen table,” explains Gramm) is one of five electioneering stops that the senator-economist from Texas stages across eastern
Iowa that day. It is part of his increasingly desperate pursuit of early front-runner Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, while trying to hold off surging upstart Steve Forbes, the multimillionaire magazine owner-editor, in a nine-man race for the Republican party presidential nomination. The party’s Iowa caucus polling on Feb. 12, and primary election balloting in New Hampshire eight days later, are important early steps in deciding which Republican will take on Democratic President Bill Clinton in the national election on Nov. 5.
On the day that Gramm called on the Steffecks, crisscrossing eastern Iowa paths with both Dole and Forbes to attend other, bigger
gatherings, it happened that Forbes followed Gramm into Iowa City and Dole into a Mississippi river town called Clinton. Forbes outdrew each of the senators by margins of more than two to one in audience counts. And late last week, a New Hampshire opinion poll for the Boston Globe put Forbes out front, favored by 31 per cent of likely voters to 22 per cent for Dole, with Gramm down among the single-digit also-rans. All the candidates agree that the ultimate November election, with the political tilt of Congress as well as the White House at stake, will shape America’s long-term future and, as Forbes maintains, “have world significance.” Into the next millennium, he tells
standing-room crowds in both Iowa City and Clinton, “if America is a self-confident, forward-looking, dynamic, energetic nation, the rest of the world will quickly follow our example.”
The way to fulfilment of Forbes’s new-millennium vision, he tells rapt and applauding voters in an articulate monotone, has a simple starting point. The central plank of his platform—virtually his only point in the early running—calls for the abolition of graduated income tax and the adoption of a “flat tax” code. In his version of that long-debated system, the federal government would levy a single, 17-per-cent tax on wages and salaries only, with no deductions, allowances or credits beyond standard amounts of tax-free income for individuals and families.
What astonishes pundits, frustrates Forbes’s rivals—and gains him celebrity treatment in the American media—is how a sometimes socially awkward outsider with no electioneering experience has risen so quickly with an idea that many others in many places advocate (including Reform party Leader Preston Manning in Canada). Gramm’s platform, for one, includes a 16-per-cent flat tax, although, unlike the Forbes plan, it would tax investment income and retain personal deductions for mortgage interest payments and donations to charities. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, another Republican presidential candidate, proposes scrapping federal income tax altogether in favor of a 17-percent national sales tax. In January, a Republican panel commissioned by Dole and headed by former cabinet secretary Jack Kemp recommended a single-rate tax system. Texas Republican Richard Armey, majority leader in the House of Representatives, is a veteran flat-tax advocate who has predicted that the idea will be a major issue in the autumn election campaign—perhaps not expecting that it would rank so frontally as an outsider’s borrowed idea in the presidential nomination contest What sets the Forbes proposal apart is its apparent simplicity (“You will be able to file your tax return on a postcard”) along with his claim that everybody wins. But more than that, Forbes presents his plan as a panacea, a nostrum to cure America’s ills—from crime and unemployment to poor schooling and the slippage in family values. He has shown he has a detailed grasp of foreign-policy issues and generally espouses moderate Republican positions on particular social issues. But he still manages to attribute most of the country’s woes to Washington.
‘We are frustrated today,” Forbes explains to his Iowa audiences in his stock stump speech. “People don’t understand why two incomes in a family can’t seem to do the job that one income could in previous generations. The American people also don’t understand why the quality of life in our country has been under such assault for the last 30 years—in our schools, in our streets, for our families.”
He insists that the distinction others draw between values and economics is false. “The changes that I’m talking about in this campaign all have the common theme of giving individual Americans more control over their lives—more opportunity, more responsibility, more power to shape their own destinies.” At present, he says, Washington stands in the way, and taxation is Washington’s principal source of power. “The only thing to do with this monstrosity is to scrap it, kill it, drive a stake through its heart, bury it and hope it never rises again to terrorize the American people,” Forbes declares to loud applause. “Replace this monstrosity with a simple flat tax,” he advises, and “the American people will be keeping more of what they earn and will be blasting away at more job-creating investments—not only more jobs, but better-paying jobs.”
Replying to critics who say that his scheme would reduce revenue and thwart attempts to balance the federal budget, Forbes seems to contradict his argument that the flow of tax money to Washington is the root of most evils (“The power to tax is the power to destroy,” he says). In fact, he maintains, the tax flow to Washington will grow. The charge that his plan will balloon the budget deficit is “hogwash—when the American people’s tax burden has been reduced, government revenues go up.” The argument goes that people have more money to invest in savings, stock and bond markets, which stimulates industrial expansion, creating more jobs and, therefore, more taxpayers.
That contention is descended from Reaganomics, the so-called supply-side theories that Ronald Reagan carried into the White House 15 years ago. The chief author of the Reagan policy, and his 1981 tax cut, was Jack Kemp, the former NFL quarterback, congressman and cabinet secretary from Buffalo who led Dole’s tax commission and, as founder of a Washington think-tank, Empower America, is a Republican guru. Forbes is chairman of Empower America. And he decided to take the flat-tax, supply-side case to the hustings only after Kemp declined to run. Forbes supports his argument that supply-side tax cuts generate more revenue by noting that, over the decade of the 1980s, the federal income tax take almost doubled (even at that, the record shows that it grew at a slower pace than total national income).
CHASING THE PRIZE
Unless the red-in-the-face rhetoric of a Pat Buchanan, a Bob Doman or an Alan Keyes counts (all are talk-show shouters as well as candidates), charisma is scarce among the nine rightists seeking the Republican Party nomination for the U.S. presidency. That troubles many in the party. They question whether any of the nine could topple Democrat Bill Clinton, an adroit and eloquent campaigner, from his one-size-fits-all platform of borrowed conservative and seasoned liberal planks. A quick mndown:
THE BIG SIX
SENATOR ROBERT (BOB) DOLE, 72: His cV alone gave him front-runner status from the start of his third run for the White House (after 1980 and 1988), a giant among political pygmies. As a member of Congress since 1961, a senator since 1969
and Senate Republican leader since 1985, he is an adept pilot of legislation. But younger partisans ask if the sage old veteran is the proper leader of a party now in the grip of a radical rightism espoused by most of his rivals.
MALCOLM S. (STEVE) FORBES, 48: The inheritor of the business magazine Forbes and one of America’s richest men (worth an estimated $700 million), he jumped into the race in September with a one-note message: replace graduated income tax with a single “flat tax.” His only other apparent asset, with politics in wide disrepute, is his novice status. By January, polls rated him Dole’s chief challenger.
SENATOR PHILIP (PHIL) GRAMM, 53: Since entering Congress in 1979 as a Democratic representative, and as a Republican senator from 1985, the former Texas A&M economist has battled to outlaw federal budget deficits (while funnelling federal dollars into Texas projects). Austerity remains, at least as a generality, his campaign’s central theme.
PATRICK (PAT) BUCHANAN, 57: In his 1992 run for the nomination, the talk-show curmudgeon railed against abortion, loose morals and crime.
This time around, he rages like a labor leader against the loss of manufacturing jobs, blaming free trade. He scores well in the Deep South and Far North, notably in Louisiana and Alaska.
LAMAR ALEXANDER, 55: Former Tennessee governor (1979-1987) and federal education secretary (1991 -1993), he wants a part-time Congress, power to the states and subsidized private schooling. He features a plaid shirt and Nashville gospel on the hustings. But in a recent name-recognition poll, he drew mostly blanks.
SENATOR RICHARD LUGAR, 63: A naval intelligence officer early in the Cold War and an Indiana farmer, he has focused on arms and agriculture as a senator since 1977—for disarmament and against farm subsidies. He says he is thus best set to handle “the two issues on which our future really depends—nuclear security and fiscal sanity.”
NO CHANCE, BUT FORCING DEBATE
REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT (BOB) DORNAN, 62: The former fighter pilot won firebrand renown on Los Angeles TV and, since 1977, in Congress. In January, he pushed through a law to discharge Hiv-positive military personnel as largely “drug users, people who visited whorehouses, or homosexuals.”
ALAN KEYES, 45: A Harvard doctoral graduate, a former U.S. envoy to the United Nations and a Maryland radio host, the contest’s lone African-American rails against abortion, affirmative action and the absence of godliness in government.
MAURICE (MORRY) TAYLOR, 51 : The owner of the nation’s biggest wheel-making business, in Quincy, III., offers to downsize the federal bureaucracy by one-third in 18 months. C.M.
Forbes’s early successes on the campaign trail have provoked personal attacks from his Republican rivals and assaults on his simplified flat-tax and supply-side economics. Taking aim at the multimillionaire’s self-financed campaign, Dole declared last week: ‘This election is not for sale. It doesn’t go to the person who goes to work in a helicopter.” Dole has also hit him for lavish spending while in charge of Radio Free Europe in the 1980s, Forbes’s only government job. His program, derided in Reagan’s day as “voodoo economics,” is dismissed as what candidate Lamar Alexander, former Tennessee governor and federal cabinet secretary, called “a nutty idea.”
Forbes’s unruffled response: of course, that’s the “Washington culture” talking—“it’s going to take an outsider, not a Washington insider, to do it.”
Despite his early strength,
Forbes faces a hard road against the insiders. Dole is said to have New York locked up and Gramm (right) with the is the most “presidential” of the Steffecks: still undecided candidates. Georgia-born-and-
raised Gramm is strong in the South, including his vote-rich Texas base. And if Forbes prevails against his fellow Republicans in the nomination race, he then will face an insider with a reputation as a more formidable campaigner, Bill Clinton. And there remains in the wings a potential interloper in Ross Perot, the independent spoiler who scuttled Republican George Bush’s re-election chances four years ago by siphoning off conservative votes.
Clinton and his Democrats received fresh encouragement last week that the party’s rout by Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in the 1994 congressional election may have been, after all, a passing political tremor instead of an enduring earth-moving quake in American society, as Republicans see it. In Oregon, against the predictions of the Republicans and neutral pundits, liberal Democrat Ron Wyden, a former congressman, beat conservative Republican Gordon Smith, president of the state senate, for a U.S. Senate seat. Wyden captured the seat, vacated last fall by Bob Packwood in the face of sexual harassment charges, by a margin of less than one per cent of the statewide vote. But he is the first Democrat to represent Oregon in the U.S. Senate in 35 years. And he won a campaign abetted on both sides by the two national party organizations as a test run for the presidential and congressional elections in November.
But in February, the only political certainty is that Americans are in for nine more months of the extravagant and exhausting exercise of U.S. democracy. To outsiders it may seem excessive, as it does to nearly half of the 195 million eligible electors who will not bother to vote in November, if past patterns prevail.
Still, there are some benefits even to non-users of the franchise. Businessman Morry Taylor, the darkest of the dark horses in the Republican race, found a surefire way to pull in a crowd—a $2,500 lucky-draw prize at his meetings. And there are smaller perks. After Phil Gramm’s visit to the Steffeck home, he flew from Cedar Falls to the Mississippi shore town of Burlington in Iowa’s southeast corner. There, he hosted a free sandwich-salad-speech lunch at the local Eagles Club. Retired farmer Bill Gittings attended. Asked afterwards for his feelings about the candidate, Gittings hemmed and hawed and said he didn’t dabble much in politics. “But it was a good lunch,” he said, grinning, “and the price was right.” And there was no tax. □
A TIGHT TIMETABLE
The Clinton nine for Republicans the U.S. presidency competing next for November the right to are challenge entering the Bill showdown stage of their nomination struggle. Begun last week in Alaska and Hawaii, the schedule of state primary elections—or, as in Iowa and a half-dozen other states, of hundreds of precinct caucuses—spans 18 weeks. But the winner is likely to emerge in less than half that time.
The process, governed by 50 different state laws and varying local party rules, is designed to choose the 1,984 voting delegates to the Republican national convention in San Diego, Aug. 12 to 15.
(Clinton, unopposed by any of his fellow Democrats, goes through the motions in a parallel procedure leading to his party’s convention in Chicago, Aug. 26 to 29.) The voters will decide the fates of the nine Republican hopefuls by choosing among potential convention delegates committed to a candidate or, as in Iowa, expressing preferences directly in a poll. In some places, the statewide winner takes all delegates; in others, delegates are apportioned according to candidates’ share of the votes. Strangely, some states allow registered Democrats to vote in Republican primaries, and vice versa.
The early Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, although representing only a tiny proportion of the national party membership, may provide initial momentum to the eventual winner. At the least, they serve to winnow the field. (This year, Louisiana sought to upstage Iowa by holding its caucuses first, but only Phil Gramm and Patrick Buchanan have campaigned seriously there.) With the 1996 timetable of primaries and caucuses more tightly compressed than in previous presidential election years, the Republican nominee is expected to be decided before the end of March at the latest. By March 26, when California Republicans vote in the most populous state’s winner-take-all primary, almost three-quarters of the nominating vote will have been allocated. Here is the timetable for the February polls, which will be crucial testing grounds, and the biggest contests to follow:
KEY i DELEGATE DATE j STATES_\ VOTES Feb. 6_I_Louisiana_j_28_ Feb. 12_|_Iowa_j_25_ Feb. 20_I_New Hampshire j_16_ Feb. 24_j_Delaware_j_12_ Feb. 27 j Arizona j 39 North Dakota j 18 South Dakota \ 18 March 5 j Georgia ; 42 _j_Massachusetts ;_37_ March 7 j_New York_j_^02_ March 12 ; Texas j 123 I Florida ; 98 March 19 Illinois j 69 Ohio j 67 _i_Michigan_j_57_ March 26 j California j 163 April 13 \ Virginia_j_53_ April 23 ! Pennsylvania_j_73_ May 7 j North Carolina Í 58 j Indiana_j_52_ June 4 • New Jersey ! 48