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In 1992, billionaire Ross Perot used his tremendous wealth to fund a serious campaign for the presidency. Malcolm "Steve" Forbes, Jr. is the latest super-rich prodigy to capture the attention of American voters. Polls show the magazine fortune heir leading former frontrunner Senator Bob Dole in New Hampshire, the site of the first Republican primary.
Why has Forbes surged into the lead? Certainly not due to a warm personality or a charismatic speaking style. Not a seasoned politician, Forbes often appears uneasy and awkward when speaking to or personally greeting potential voters. He is adept at stressing an economic message but falters when faced with some of the moral issues that conservative voters want to hear about. For example, at a recent campaign stop in Iowa, when asked about his position regarding same-sex marriages, Forbes hesitated uncomfortably and then stammered incoherently like a rookie on a high school debate team. Yet, he has distinguished himself from the other Republican candidates with his claim to be a Washington outsider, immune from the bureaucratic mindset.
Forbes' main selling point is his support for a simplified tax code--a flat rate of only 17 percent. While some of his competitors, such as Senator Phil Gramm and television commentator Patrick Buchanan also emphasize their support for a flat tax, Forbes seems to be the candidate most associated with tax reform. Forbes actually speaks of little else than the alleged merits of a flat tax. His message is little more than crude economic determinism--he professes that his flat tax will not only boost America's economic stature, but will also encourage a renewal of America's culture and values.
While it is hard to imagine why a flat tax would curb rampant teenage pregnancy or clean up trash daytime TV talk shows, it is even more difficult to understand the economic advantages of Forbes' income tax proposal. His plan would drastically reduce the taxes of the wealthiest Americans by slashing tax rates on salaries and making capital gains and interest completely tax free. An example of the potential savings that the affluent would realize could be demonstrated if Forbes made his personal income tax return public. While most other major candidates have released their tax forms to the press, Forbes refuses to do so.
Under a flat tax, the middle class would pay about the same or even a little more in Federal income tax than they pay now. Barring a magical supply-side rejuvenation of the economy, tax revenues would plummet, forcing further reductions in government services. However, Forbes has made the flat tax the corner-stone of his campaign and it is responsible for much of his success.
Forbes' recent success may also be attributable to the weak field of Republican candidates--none seems able to capture the hearts and minds of voters. Bob Dole, who once had a commanding lead in the pre-primary polls, has faltered recently. Perhaps his decline is due to his public image. One Republican insider recently described him as "cadaverlike."
Perhaps Forbes' candidacy has also been fueled by the news media, which has been itching to recreate the drama of the last election season. A horse race between Forbes and Dole until the convention in San Diego is more interesting than a runaway victory for Dole. With the revised schedule that compresses the primary process from months to weeks, we will soon know if a family fortune can really buy the Republican nomination.
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