In an uplifting political moment last Thursday, Steve Forbes dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination--only, of course, after spending $66 million over the past six years. Many political critics recognize a candidate's need for money to run an effective campaign. Forbes' failure, however, assures the American people that although one may need money to succeed, it still takes more than dollar bills to win an election. A candidate needs not only a vision for the future, but also a constituency of people who agree with him--while not being on his payroll.
Forbes made his decision to bow out of the race after his disappointing third place finish in the Delaware primary. He had won in Delaware in 1996 with just 33 percent of the vote, but although he spent more time and money there this year than any other candidate, Forbes lost last week to Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain decided not to campaign at all in the state so that he could focus on South Carolina.
Forbes campaigned on a 17 percent flat tax and a socially conservative platform with an anti-abortion stance. After 106 months of economic expansion in which the wealthy have gained more than their share, however, not even the rich could accept in good conscience the free ride that Forbes' tax plan offered them.
Forbes likes to believe that he stimulated the GOP debate on taxes and abortion. But Texas Gov. George W. Bush and McCain would have discussed tax cuts regardless of Forbes, and Forbes may have even brought more attention to abortion than the other candidates would have liked. For instance, Forbes probably pushed Bush to his conservative stance on abortion. In fact, Forbes helped facilitate the GOP's favorite way to lose general elections: force leading candidates to the extreme right during the primaries, so that they alienate the majority of the general election voters and simultaneously win the nomination.
Forbes' real contribution to this year's campaign has been to show that lucrative spending cannot develop a constituency. In the Iowa straw poll last August--although no delegates were at stake--Forbes spent $160 per vote. He ranks close to Ross Perot and Michael Huffington among wealthy men willing to spare no expense for their political ambitions.
There has been some debate over who will benefit from Forbes' withdrawal from the race. Bush supporters think that the social conservatives who supported Forbes will come to their side. And McCain's followers hope that Forbes attracted free-minded people who will follow him rather than go along with the party establishment. Unfortunately, this political discussion misses the real winners now that Forbes has terminated his presidential quest and has stopped wasting his money: his children.