How goes the Forbes campaign? We don’t hear much about our hero in the political press these days, except as it notes that he has already spent $4 million of his sizeable fortune and that he appears to have attracted the support of 9% of the Republicans in New Hampshire, according to one local poll. Most of the money has been spent on three different 30-second television spots which you probably have seen by now, one of which has been a bit controversial. The first two hammered away at his anti-tax and pro-economic growth themes, the third and controversial spot has pounded relentlessly at Senator Bob Dole’s supposed opposition to term limits. Let’s examine this dust-up for clues to Forbes’s strategy and its possibilities.
The controversy stems from Dole’s insistence that the spot is a distortion of his position, which it may be at one level of political discourse. As a mild opponent to term limits myself, I tend to sympathize with Majority Leader Dole, who is trying to run for President at the same time he must shepherd a complex legislative program through the Senate. At the request of several freshmen Senators who are in favor of term limits, Dole early this month pulled the term-limits legislation from the crowded Senate calendar. Sen. John Ashbrook [R-MO], an ardent champion of term limits, objected to this move, which his fellow advocates desired on the grounds that they knew it would lose if it came to a vote this year. They wanted it put off to 1996 and Dole went along. In his 30-second spot, which continued to run incessantly even after Dole’s campaign formally objected, Forbes chastised Dole for not pressing ahead on the issue and not recognizing its importance to political reform in Washington. In a technical sense, we can appreciate Dole’s irritation. At a deeper level of political discourse, Forbes is hammering at Dole’s central weakness as a presidential candidate: He is not a reformer, not a political leader, or he would not be taking term limits off the calendar at the request of other people; Dole is a legislative leader, who defends his action by announcing that he only did what he did because he was asked to do so.
The most important thing I can tell you about this strategy is that it was designed by one man, Malcolm S. Forbes, Jr., who I have come to refer to as Steve Skywalker. Like the Star Wars protagonist, the 48-year-old political neophyte is hurling himself at his objective on his own plan and reliance on his own instincts. If he is going to be elected President of the United States next year, as he thinks will happen, Steve has come to believe he cannot be burdened with political experts to call his plays. “My advisors are finding I have a mind of my own,” he chuckled at his opening press conference last month. In August, I told him that if he hired the best political strategist in the world, and did everything exactly as that strategist advised, he would lose, just as a great quarterback would lose every game if he ran every play exactly as called by the head coach from the sidelines. Even before the ball is snapped, the great quarterback is revising the play to take account of the shifting defenses of the opposition. Steve Skywalker’s method, we are coming to see, is to listen carefully to the advice of everyone who finds his ear, then design his own plays. Once he has decided on a course of action, he is not easily moved from it, as we observe from his term-limits maneuver.
Instead of coming into the campaign with a lofty design of his candidacy as a means of defining himself to the voters, Steve decided to move first in the other direction. Where Richard Nixon advised Bob Dole first to move right for the GOP primary voters, then move left for the general election, Steve decided first to move down, as you do when you build a foundation, and then move up in stages, as you would in constructing a skyscraper. He seems to have decided on this after observing the campaign of former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, with his amorphous “outsider” message that has nothing you can get your teeth into. The foundation of the Forbes campaign can be seen in the three TV spots, which are being pounded like pile drivers into the electorate’s sense of him. There is now no question that his campaign is about reform of Beltway business-as-usual. Term limits is not about term limits as much as it is about reform, about fundamental change, which the voters are seeking. It is a litmus test, by which voters understand a candidate to be either for or against fundamental change. The term-limit spot, and Dole’s furious response to it, are hammering home not only Steve’s read-my-lips commitment to overhaul, reform, and reorganize the central government. It also reinforces the perception of Dole’s ambivalence, his hesitation, his status-quo role in the Beltway legislative game -- probably the best argument for term limits.
In the same way, Steve has established his growth message around the national objective of one breadwinner per family, which is the first 30-second spot he ran. The second spot is the means to that end, which is a flat, fair, simple tax. Steve appears to have judged that the electorate will distinguish between his pure version of the flat tax and those versions supported by the other candidates which are watered down to flatter, fairer and simpler. The electorate knows “the President proposes, the Congress disposes.” If the President is to be a guidepost, not a weathervane, he must point in a definite direction toward a definite ideal. It is the legislative branch, composed of 535 men and women representing different regions, different industries, different age groups, different income classes, whose job it is to take the pure version and shape it to a national consensus. Steve is also the only candidate who has announced to the country that he is not afraid of a tax cut that does not pay for itself with spending cuts -- thereby putting him in the company of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, the only two Presidents of our time who held to that view. In other words, he is not afraid of the Laffer Curve.
In a meeting with clients in Atlanta yesterday (after doing the lunch talk at the Atlanta Financial Analysts Society), I was asked if Steve was a good manager, if he knew how to manage. Whereupon I opened my briefcase, pulled out a copy of Forbes, a copy of FYI, and a copy of ASAP, and dropped them on the table. They thudded like telephone directories. Steve, I said, did not inherit these publications. When he was 30, his father began turning the business over to him, directing his own energies to the business and pleasure of marketing the primary publication with his in-your-face commitment to entrepreneurial capitalism. Steve has always thought of himself as being fortunate to have inherited the foundation of a publishing empire, with the family responsibility of erecting upon it (with the help of his three brothers) a skyscraper taller than all others. He’s done it. Forbes now runs more advertising pages than any other magazine in the world. The other magazines in the empire, which Steve initiated, also have had stunning success. If that is not a sufficient answer to his managerial skills, we could review his tenure as chairman of the Board of International Broadcasting (Radio Free Europe) and at Empower America. All this, plus his willingness to spend what it takes to get his message out, suggests he may be the best man around to manage his own campaign strategy.
What can we expect in the future? What will the skyscraper look like when it’s finished? For that, you and I will have to wait and see. We know what he thinks about practically every public policy issue under the sun, or at least how he has approached them in the past. This is why he was urged to run in the first place. We know what the bricks look like, now we will see how he puts them together -- guessing the pinnacle will be solid gold. Just as he has built upon the foundation he inherited from his grandfather and father, he looks upon this enterprise as the unfinished work of his political grandfather and father, Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. A skyscraper for the City on a Hill.