Forbes's Rich Problem

Wm. F. Buckley Jr.

Steve Forbes's campaign is revealing, challenging, and amusing. The sheer improbability, last November, that he would get anywhere tended to interdict any other consideration of his candidacy, yet here he is, running second in various states. In the debate in Iowa on Saturday the other candidates all consolidated as a Get Forbes posse. He escaped, but bruises landed, inflicted by fellow Republicans, of course, and, in many cases, fellow conservatives.

He has split the conservative vote, and, accordingly, Senator Gramm went after him lustily. This was in part a professional obligation (there is no way Phil Gramm can stop Dole and share affections with Steve Forbes) and in part personal (Senator Gramm is smarting from Forbes's ads).

Forbes has of course been baiting Gramm in a television and radio campaign that has suffused Iowa with Forbes's agenda. His complaint is that Gramm's insistence on a reduction in government expenses pays insufficient heed to the possibilities that open up under a return to supply-side policies. Gramm counters that you can't have effective tax relief without asphyxiative government policies that would hugely reduce government expenditures. Without exactly saying so, Forbes resists this, preferring to cite the prodigality of growth when the yokes are removed from the taxpayers' necks. It is a nice quarrel, and conservatives tend to hope that both sides will win.

Now the special vulnerabilities of Forbes on the larger political scene are difficult for such as Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan and indeed Lamar Alexander to cope with. His company has a private airplane blissfully named Capitalist Tool. And his company has a gorgeous big yacht, which will take you around the world, if you press the right button. Now the Internal Revenue Service, over the years, has examined the expense accounts of these two amenities with ferocious attention, but the records absolutely establish a business purpose in maintaining them. The primary weight of their expense rests on the shoulders of the stockholders, who are the Forbes family.

There is that, plus also the general political disability of disposing of great wealth. The public doesn't find this disqualifying -- FDR was relatively rich -- and anyway, right-wing inclinations do not go in lockstep with wealth. (Bill Gates voted for Clinton.) In 1958 there were three contenders for statewide office in New York. Averell Harriman was standard-bearer of the left wing of the Democratic Party; challenger Nelson Rockefeller was standard-bearer of the left wing of the Republican Party; Corliss Lamont was, pure and simple, a Communist fellow-traveler running on a socialist ticket. All three gentlemen were heirs to great fortunes.

So that the Republican public, in a Republican primary, is not going to be frightened off by the documentation of Steve Forbes's wealth. It is a slightly different matter that he has put that wealth entirely at the disposal of his campaign. That understandably irritates those poor souls who have to spend half of every day collecting nickels and dimes from house to house; but there is no indication that the public is put off on the matter, although there may be a considerable difference between the cited popularity of Steve Forbes and the number of people who will actually turn up to vote for him.

His primary problem has to do with the widespread belief that a flat tax would hurt the middle class, specifically, those who earn between $70,000 and $200,000. Forbes acknowledges that for the first year, perhaps two years, taxing families with incomes over $36,000 at 17 per cent, disallowing deductions, and immunizing dividend and estate income would mean a deficit, but one which, he vows, would soon disappear under the promptings of an invigorated marketplace. But of course the first thing done by the other candidates and their accomplices was to try to figure out how much less this would hypothetically cost Steve Forbes personally, compared with what they figure out he paid last year.

The estimated saving is substantial. Forbes was justifiably inflamed at the preposterous suggestion that someone is going to run for President of the United States in order to spur on a tax reform that will save the new President money on his income tax. The gentle Steve Forbes waxed wroth on the point and retorted that he will have spent twenty times the hypothetical saving on his presidential campaign. A rather convincing point: It doesn't really make sense to spend $20 million in a campaign in order prospectively to diminish one's tax payments by about $200,000. Some will remember the character in the Hollywood movie whom the all-powerful, manipulative gang offered either of two alternative posts: Commissioner of Baseball, or President of the United States. William Powell paused, twitched his moustache, then said, ``Which pays more?''

Mr. Forbes isn't playing a political part, isn't going to be President, but he has done an endearing thing.