Cover Story

Right on the money

Some Republicans believe the new message of sound economics and social conservatism delivered by publishing magnate Steve Forbes could unite their party in a way the GOP has not seen since Ronald Reagan. There's one problem. Reserved Yankee Episcopalians don't mix well with conservative evangelicals who hold veto power in the GOP presidential primaries. Which is why Mr. Forbes is working so hard so early to win their trust.

Issue: "Forbes: Right on the money," Nov. 8, 1997

Steve Forbes is a great argument against reincarnation. If there were any karmic justice in the universe, he'd be a professor right now, droning on about the Gilded Age and the robber barons behind some ivy-covered walls. It's a role he clearly was born for: He loves history; he delivers thoughtful (if less than gripping) lectures; and his round glasses give him the owlishly intellectual look that substitutes for a secret handshake among the academic fraternity.

But something went wrong. Mr. Forbes was born into one of America's foremost publishing dynasties, and all that professorial potential was wasted on making bundles of money. Fifty years and billions of dollars later, however, the family empire is feeling a bit restrictive, and Mr. Forbes is ready for a career change. Too bad for students everywhere he's decided against applying for that teaching job at Princeton, his alma mater. Evidently, he believes that making history would be more fun than teaching it. So, for his next career, he'd like to be president.

There are plenty of people who would rather Mr. Forbes stick to business journalism, and many obstacles stand between Forbes the publisher and Forbes the president. Career politicians of all stripes don't like to see an upstart outsider reaching the pinnacle of power. Democrats don't like to see a Republican-insider or outsider-in the White House. And many conservative Christians don't like to see a country club Republican heading their party's ticket.

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It's this last group that may hold the key to Steve Forbes's political ambitions. He may be able to overpower Republican insiders and perhaps outpoll the Democrats, but Mr. Forbes probably can't win the Republican primary without the support of conservative Christians, the most reliable voting bloc in the GOP. He learned as much in 1996 when, despite spending millions of dollars and winning two early primary contests, he had to bow out of the race after the religious right made its peace-however reluctantly-with Bob Dole. Christian voters liked the Forbes flat tax plan but didn't hear the flat-out condemnation of abortion they were listening for. They didn't hear it from Mr. Dole, either, but at least his Senate voting record bought him the tacit approval of mainline pro-life groups.

So, with the next presidential election still three years away, Mr. Forbes is campaigning hard to build an outsiders' track record, to convince morally conservative voters that his country club membership didn't require a vow of political moderation. Beltway conservatives also seem willing to give him a second look. At a recent Forbes speech on "The Moral Basis of a Free Society," there were twice as many bodies as seats in the auditorium of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

"I can't believe it's this crowded," grumbled one Capitol Hill staffer as he staked out a square foot of floor space.

"Hey, history is being made," replied a friend sitting cross-legged next to him.

Mr. Forbes, for his part, tried to play down the epochal nature of his speech, insisting that social issues had always been important to him and that his message in 1996 had perhaps been misinterpreted. It's a point his staff works hard to reinforce. A call to his communications office requesting old Forbes editorials addressing social issues results in a 28-page fax. Sure enough, the social conservatism seems to be there, for anyone patient enough to trace the intellectual bread crumbs.

For the doubters, Mr. Forbes is working hard to make the trail more explicit. The Heritage Foundation speech, he says, "was an attempt to demonstrate systematically that they're all tied together-economics, politics, morals." The political junkies in attendance loved the message-he was interrupted six times with applause-but few seemed to buy the "I've-always-been-a-social-conservative" line. Of the six questions asked at the speech's conclusion, half were along the lines of "Is this a conversion of convenience?"

Clearly, Mr. Forbes is frustrated by the assumption among some that his born-again social conservatism came about on the road to the White House, not the road to Damascus. "I did speak to social conservatives in '96," he told WORLD in a post-speech interview. "It's been an ongoing dialog. It may have attracted more notice now, but you can't always control when people notice something and when they don't. Look at what I wrote or said before I even went into the public square in September of '95. I think you'll find the consistency is there."

Outside the interview room, however, a 15-year veteran of the Forbes family security detail had a different impression. "I was really glad to hear this speech," he said, and added that he'd become a believer just three months earlier, after sending his children to a Christian school so they could get a decent education. "I've heard all his speeches dozens of times, but this is the first time I've heard him talk like this."

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