In early March 1991, I met with Ross Perot for three hours in his office in Dallas, talking about his independent run for the presidency. In case you forget, his objective was to overthrow the corrupt inside game of the two political parties, starting with the tax system. He planned to take a fresh sheet of paper and write a new tax code on it, he had told Larry King in that famous television interview that rocketed him into the political firmament. At that meeting, arranged by Ted Forstmann who had met with Perot a week earlier, I told Perot the Establishment would do anything it could to stop him from becoming President. “First it will try character assassination,” I said, “and if that did not work it will try real bullets.”
Within the two-party system, Steve Forbes is of course attempting what Perot failed to achieve -- the political equivalent of exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the scribes and driving the money changers from the temple. It is a frightfully awesome, dangerous undertaking, as Forbes is just now beginning to discover. Where it appeared only a week ago that he might even win tonight in the first major test facing him, there is speculation that he may be crushed by the caucus-goers of Iowa. Steve had no idea it would get as rough as it has. Every one of the other major GOP candidates and their teams have been either flat-out lying about his positions on economic and social issues or grotesquely distorting them. The scribes in the Washington press corps seem to have scarcely noticed. They instead routinely criticize him for running TV spots that put the money changers of the temple in a negative light.
Frankly, I’ve never seen such concerted, conscious prevarication aimed at a single candidate by his opponents. They all know he is not “pro-abortion” and not in favor of “gays in the military” or “gay marriages.” In the last several months, he has spelled out his positions on these cultural issues with unwavering, excruciating specificity. Yet they or their agents are openly labeling him as such on national television. They are thus happily reinforcing the anonymous boiler-room operations directed at him by one opponent who has been revealed, Bob Dole, and by one which has not, the Iowa branch of the Christian Coalition, which we must remember is a political organization, not a religious one. Dole’s motive is clear enough. He would like Steve demolished in Iowa because he knows he is the only candidate in the field who can wrest the nomination from him. He is willing to say or do anything to that end. It was astonishing this weekend to observe Gov. Steve Merrill of New Hampshire, a Dole backer, stoutly defending Dole’s TV commercial attacking the flat tax. Every member of the press corps knows the commercial is purposely fraudulent. Former Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a Forbes backer, called his fellow New Hampshire Republican Merrill “a bald-faced liar” on national television. In his Saturday column, Bob Novak reports that Dole knows his spot is fraudulent but does not wish to embarrass Merrill, who supplied the phoney numbers and cut the spot for Dole. Ah, how sweet.
The Christian Coalition doesn’t really care who wins, as long as it isn’t Forbes. The Coalition is itself part of the Washington political establishment, with a vested interest in keeping its issue from being resolved. It is one of the most active money changers in the temple atop Capitol Hill, always careful to ask for more than Congress can deliver. Its director, Ralph Reed, is clearly willing to bear false witness against his neighbor, Steve Forbes, as he did yesterday, the Lord’s Day, on "This Week with David Brinkley," in order to keep him from power. Ralph, who knows better, accused Steve of ignoring discussion of cultural issues and then happily reported Steve’s support among religious Iowans “falling like a stone.” Steve may appear politically naive in identifying the Christian Coalition as the source of the subterranean opposition against him in Iowa, but he is correct. The CC made a conscious decision to oppose his step-by-step approach to consolidating anti-abortion gains as they occur. Ralph Reed is a nice fellow, but he follows orders.
Having said this, Steve has quickly adjusted to the realities. In the caucuses tonight, he may do no better than fourth, which was his original objective, but will seem weak after he appeared to be neck-and-neck with Dole a week ago. Yet, his innate optimism enables him to see that if he is going to slay the Beltway Beast with his flat-tax Excalibur, he can’t spend any time complaining that the Beast doesn’t fight fair. Indeed, on C-SPAN’s "Washington Journal" this morning, he treated the experience as if it were meant to toughen him up for the fall campaign against President Clinton. He was practically serene in commenting on the orchestrated barrage against him in Iowa. If he can’t handle this kind of stuff, how can he handle bigger challenges down the line? Our hero simply has it in his head that he is going to be the next President, and that ordinary Americans will rally to the cause when they come to see he does not quit at the first sign of blood.
The most important thing to know about the caucuses tonight is that the balloting is not secret. At some 1200 precincts, some 150,000 Iowans will gather, probably most for the first time -- the last GOP contest was eight years ago. Here and there, a precinct might decide to vote by secret ballot, but for the most part peer pressure is a distinct part of the caucus process. People vote by standing up for their candidate. The Christian Coalition will have their people in tow, and will watch to make sure they do not vote for Steve. Organization Republicans who are naturally inclined against upstart outsiders like Steve will also rise for their candidates at the appropriate time. This is why the caucus state favors Dole, the organization candidate, and Pat Buchanan, chosen as the secret favorite of the Christian Coalition. (It has to be secret because the CC is tax exempt.)
The Iowa caucuses are up front to test Steve’s grit and resolve. The New Hampshire primary next week will test his message among the kind of ordinary people who need the secret ballot to express political choice -- those who cannot stand up to peer pressure. This is why the man who wins Iowa almost always loses New Hampshire. The Forbes campaign has always been a test of democracy -- with a citizen politician totally free of the career and financial connections in the Jurassic Park we call the Beltway. If Steve can’t do it, I can’t imagine anyone else trying in the near future. Steve is of course correct when he identifies the 7 million words of the federal tax code as the primary cancer that is draining the nation’s vitality. Every one of his competitors knows he is right, but they are all feeding off that cancer and are unable to stop. It will take an Excalibur to cut through it.
On "America’s Talking" Friday night, I suggested we have run out of room when Dwayne Andreas of Archer Daniels Midland can stand atop the temple and boast that he has bought off both political parties for $2 million each -- with lesser amounts for President Clinton, Speaker Gingrich, and Senator Dole -- at an annual cost to American consumers of $3 billion. The Pharisees will not leave without a fight. Steve continues to state that his best weapon is democracy. Mobs can be provoked to unjustly lynch or crucify. The secret ballot produces more thoughtful outcomes to political conflict.