Steve Forbes: the story of a boy and his dogma.

TRY AS ONE might, it's hard to remember a "serious" presidential candidate as charmless and seemingly empty as Malcolm Stevenson Forbes Jr. Michael Dukakis resembled a statue, but there was at least a certain gravity in that; Forbes cannot help looking like a deer squinting into the distance, nervously watching for the headlights of the car that will do him in. When microphones are thrust at him, he flinches reflexively; then stammers out the obligatory homilies to the flat tax and the entrepreneurial spirit. ("Nobody," as C. Wright Mills once noted, "talks more of free enterprise and competition and of the best man winning than the man who inherited his father's store or farm.")

He presents himself with all the panache and assurance of some unlucky soul's last-minute blind date, which is exactly what he is. Forbes's rise is entirely a function of anti-Dole sentiment among Republican voters; his early successes are a testament to his self-bank-rolled saturation bombing of the airwaves and to the fact that he is not Phil Gramm, the onetime number-two man whose mean-spirited impersonation of Yertle the Turtle seems to have alienated even the pinched Protestant voters of New Hampshire.

The abiding fact behind Forbes's surge is that voters dislike all the career pols in the Republican field. In survey after survey each one has drawn negative ratings outweighing his positives. This too benefits Forbes; since he is a cipher, a man virtually impossible to like or dislike at a personal level, he gains by virtue of what TV executives used to call the Least Objectionable Program theory. According to this little-discussed maxim, a staple of programming calculations in the 1980s, most people watch TV just to watch TV. And since most of what's on television is shit, it follows that the goal is to be the least offensive shit around. Quality? Substance? The whole point is to keep viewers from feeling moved to change channels for as long as possible. Substitute Republican presidential politics for TV in this equation and you get--Steve Forbes.

Last week I visited Forbes's campaign page on the Internet. There one can view the text of two speeches, his September campaign announcement and an October talk before a small business convention; the latter is largely taken verbatim from the former. His half-dozen or so "position papers" are in turn taken entirely from those two speeches. Forbes's campaign rhetoric is a listless melange of supply-side optimism, Washington-bashing, and paeans to the flat tax--his only idea, and upon closer examination not his idea at all. When pressed for specifics, his campaign dawdled for two weeks before telling a Fortune reporter that it was the same as Texas Republican Dick Armey's flat tax plan, albeit with a lower rate.

The flat tax, which was on the Repub-lican agenda before he came along, is serious business even if Forbes isn't. It currently has the backing of several House Republicans as well as a number of think tanks and a recently concluded commission headed by Jack Kemp, all of whom are bound to be emboldened by the splash Forbes has made. It's supply-side economics taken to extremes that Jude Wanniski and David Stockman could only have fantasized back in 1981: breathtaking tax cuts for the wealthiest corporations and individuals, underwritten by the pledge that economic growth rates will go through the roof and government spending will wither away without any diminution of vital services.

The reality, of course, is altogether different. Even the intellectual godparents of the flat tax scheme espoused by Forbes and Armey, Stanford economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, admit that lower taxes on the rich will necessarily mean higher taxes on the middle and upper-middle income brackets; a Treasury Department analysis of the Armey plan estimated that it would add up to an average of $1,000 more in tax debt for everyone making less than $200,000. Even so, the revenue shortfall from a flat tax on the very wealthy would mean a net loss of $40 billion in Treasury receipts. That's assuming a 20 percent flat tax; under Forbes's 17 percent solution, the number would be $150 billion. And there are a couple of further caveats. First, all of this assumes the repeal of present-day tax breaks and loopholes that the flat-taxers privately admit to be sacrosanct; and second, the flat tax proposals would exempt all capital gains and interest income from any taxation at all. The potential tax-dodging schemes abound. "What would you do if you owned, say, Forbes?" wrote Eric Alterman in a recent issue of The Nation. "Tell you what I'd do. I'd work for no salary but have my board vote me lots of stock options and bond income. So would every CEO in America."

So let government revenues decline, say Forbes et al.; let every manner of social insurance lapse. Down with the bully state! (His term.) You can say this for the flat-taxers: They are genuinely revolutionary in their designs. Anything that helps to tear down the last vestiges of our pathetically modest welfare state and advance the cause of polarization is all to the good in their view.

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