Steve Forbes: "Pro-lific" in political manipulation

By Peter Dominic
web posted August 30, 1999

Steve Forbes has managed to capture a sizeable faction of Republicans during his current bid for the GOP nomination. Predictably, Forbes' base is secured by those voters who are demanding a significant change in the income tax code. But the voters most critical to Forbes' base in 2000 are not the "flat-taxers," but the pro-lifers; the recent addition of pro-life interest to his campaign has pushed him from the "interesting failure" category in 1996 to "serious contender" status in 2000. Steve Forbes' efforts to win over the hearts of these pro-life voters is an interesting story that reveals much about Forbes, the voters, and the state of modern politics.

In 1996, some Republican strategists believed that Steve Forbes had positioned himself well for a narrow victory in the nomination process (9/22/95 NPR: All Things Considered). His campaign would occupy, so went the theory, a niche within the GOP that contained much primary-promise. The tax-cut and pro-choice presidential candidate had most often failed within the party, but 1996 appeared to be a promising year for his comeback. Forbes' competition was seen as either too radical or too dull: Dole was the party-favorite, but was the consummate bought-and-paid-for politician; Gramm had experience but had a wide reputation as a Nixon-in-waiting; Buchanan had a passionate following, but was too radical for the press and his own party-leadership; Alexander was a fresh face, but was too willing to play the clown.

Forbes clearly had made a positive impression among the voters and prognosticators early in the 1996 political season. He was a tough-minded and intelligent spokesman for the tax-cutting cause, and his oddities of appearance seemed to garner more sympathy than ridicule. His campaign – unlike those of his competitors -- was seemingly without obvious fault; the Forbes of 1996 seemed able to collect enough voters from the divided factions within the GOP to win the nomination.

The Forbes campaign did not choose to aggressively promote pro-choice views – he wisely let his pro-choice philosophy slip out bit by bit, so as to both not anger the pro-life faction unnecessarily and to slowly gather the support of pro-choice voters. The campaign strategy was to emphasize fiery denunciations of the tax-code, and employ the "sensitive dodge" on social issues. Typical of Forbes' responses to the questions of frustrated reporters: "Under the law, public opinion will not allow the banning of abortions in the early stages of a pregnancy, so I say: Where do we have a consensus now?" (1/7/96 Meet The Press).

Having already poured over polling data and primary-predictions from the experts, Forbes – like Cuomoesque politicians before him – developed a philosophy of life with political success as its goal. The Forbes of 1996 was "personally pro-life," but consistently supported the "right to choose" for all women through the sixth month of pregnancy, and rejected a Human Life Amendment out of hand (9/23/95 St. Louis Post-Dispatch). His quiet position earned him the respect of the Republican Party "Rockefeller Wing," and the Republicans for Choice organization gave him its enthusiastic approval. (11/22/95 American Political Network) When it became clear to pro-life groups and media organizations, however, that he was closer to Clinton than he was to Buchanan or Gramm, Forbes quickly discovered that he would actually have to defend his position on abortion.

So much for that comfortable niche of tax cuts and abortion rights. Pro-lifers treated Forbes to months of intense criticism and then angry questioning – but Forbes' staffers insisted that their pro-choice candidate would never "capitulate to the right wing" on abortion. (12/4/95 American Political Network). When Iowa's powerful Right to Life Committee cautioned Iowans to stay away from Forbes because of his pro-choice views, however, Forbes began to unravel. (1/22/96 A.P.) The campaign was not supposed to work like this: Forbes had counted on most pro-lifers' acceptance or ignorance of his pro-choice views, and now they were organizing against him.

Pro-lifers were already determined to sink Forbes when the press uncovered that he was the co-chair of a Republican pro-choice organization. (2/7/96 Boston Globe). Pro-life groups passed the word to voters that Forbes "has clearly been and is now committed to abortion. "(2/7/96 Des Moines Register). Because of the early uncovering of his position, Forbes decided to alter his strategy a bit. No longer could he depend on a respectable portion of the pro-life vote; he would now emphasize the idea that he was the only Republican in the race who was not part of the "extremist" pro-life fringe.

Forbes – embarrassed and frustrated – ceased dodging questions on abortion and began to purposely bring up the issue to separate himself from the pro-life candidates. Forbes denounced his competition for advocating the Human Life Amendment, and emphasized the old pro-choice tactic of "tales of terror" – including going so far as to claim that, under his opponents' policies, women seeking abortions would be imprisoned. (2/13/96 Chicago Sun-Times) Ultimately, of course, both of Steve Forbes' campaign strategies concerning abortion failed: First, his quiet pro-choice position was discovered and criticized; next, his strident "in your face" pro-choice rhetoric was rejected, reducing Forbes to a distant third-place finish.

Clearly, something had to be done. Forbes has long-term aspirations in politics, so a lack of success in 1996 did not destroy him, but for a better chance in 2000 he would have to change. And change he did! Without waiting for the dust to settle, Forbes spent a small fortune on a massive media campaign in 1997. The subject of the media campaign was the pro-life "passion" of Steve Forbes, and its purpose was to convince pro-life voters that either Forbes' abortion-position in 1996 had been somehow misunderstood, or that Forbes had undergone a kind of "born again" experience – either result would serve Forbes well for 2000.

Amazingly, the marketing of Steve Forbes as a modern tax-cutting, baby-saving Moses was accepted. The Steve Forbes of 1996 had largely disappeared! The former enemies of Forbes' candidacy – conservative Christians – lined up to enlist in the Forbes' cynical "crusade" against abortion. The new Steve Forbes railed against any and all pro-choice politicians; he called for America to stop killing its children; elderly ministers broke down and cried for Forbes to lead the faithful. Candidate Forbes was back, and stronger than ever.

Few Republican pro-lifers question the new Steve Forbes. And many embrace him over candidates who are clearly and unquestionably committed to the pro-life cause. So what happened? First, the majority of voters, including pro-life voters, do not follow politics, much less remember what a candidate did and said years ago: these voters act only on what they hear and see today. Second, many of the Christian pro-lifers circulated a "born-again" theory about Steve Forbes: "support the prodigal son" is the message among this faction. Third, many knowledgeable pro-lifers – tired of supporting honorable-but-unpromising candidates – were not convinced by the new Steve Forbes, but decided that he could not now act strongly against his message once in office.

What does Forbes himself have to say about his incredible political and personal change? Steve Forbes today will look a questioner right in the eye, crease his brow, possibly bite his lip, and say: "My views have been absolutely consistent, and even those who may not agree with my views when they look at what I said in 1996 and what I've said recently, it's absolutely a singlethread; it has been absolutely consistent." (2/3/99 American Political Network) (It all depends, you see, on what
one means by "pro-life.")

Just what does Steve Forbes truly think about abortion? Nobody except Forbes can know – and it is possible that Forbes himself has no idea. The result of Forbes' cynical positioning is that the Forbes of 2000 will have few enemies, but fewer true supporters.

The Establishment Parties today hang by a thread, although few realize it. The Democrats are finally beginning to reap the rewards of their recent corruption, as poll after poll shows Al Gore to be a loser. But the Republicans are hardly filling the void. Senator Bob Smith has already made a tumultuous exit from the party, complaining that words mean nothing in the GOP. Patrick Buchanan hints that he may do the same, and complains daily about the absence of principle in the party-leadership. Many complain that the party-favorite, George W. Bush, imitates Clinton with his vague words and confusing actions.

To put it mildly, campaign-finance reform is not the problem, folks. Most Americans have grown tired of politicians who either let polls determine their policy, or manipulate political factions with insincere tears and cheers. Both Establishment Parties are on the brink of rejection because they have been overrun by liars, dodgers, and shape-changers, and Steve Forbes is the latest entry.

This is Peter Dominic's first piece for Enter Stage Right.

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