The Steve Forbes phenomenon has the political world by the throat. Columns of print, hours of air time are devoted to his smile, his appeal, his message, his vicious ads, his helicopter, his zillions, his shady staff.
People say he shouldn't be allowed to buy the New Hampshire primary, but New Hampshire voters in their latest poll put him four points ahead of worthy, deserving Bob Dole, whose cry that it's his turn is going unheeded. People say that if Forbes' flat tax is enacted, the rich will get richer and the middle class will get one more kick in the teeth. You don't have to be Bill Gates to figure out that coupon clippers will be favored over wage earners.
Voters still like him. Why? Is it because he smiles a lot and provides a nice contrast to the glowerers all around him? While Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm and Robert Dornan project disapproval to the point of contempt, Forbes' eyes are shining and his mouth is twitching with the beginning of yet another smile. He seems to have some secret source of inner delight.
A happy Republican presidential candidate is an oxymoron. Voters may just be enjoying the novelty.
Dole may have an excellent sense of humor, but he is so careworn from his duties as Senate majority leader and so distracted by the $10-million static from Forbes, he rarely shows it. Dole's age wasn't particularly an issue until he made it one in his hapless State of the Union response, which he chose to make from a small, dark room that had about it the air of a punishment cell. And this week in New Hampshire he first canceled, then restored, a rendezvous with a new brew called Old Man's Ale.
He must brood when he sees the giant strides being made by a man with an empty portfolio. It is the first time a lack of experience is considered a plus.
Everyone understands the siren anti-government call. Forbes is without the stain of government service. Poor Dole thought his lifetime toil in harness would count in his favor, never realizing that a blank resume would be the most impressive he could submit.
Forbes is not seducing the voters with his rhetoric. It is the verbal equivalent of a brown paper bag. But if Dole would listen to his rival's applause lines, he might pick up the clue of where he went wrong.
It is nothing to inveigh against government. Even President Clinton took a big whack in his State of the Union speech. He announced the end of the era of big government. Dole has done his part in promising to shut down government agencies.
But whom did he and his fellow Republicans go after? The Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy. It was Forbes who targeted the real enemy, the Internal Revenue Service.
When people howl approval for "getting government off your back," they're thinking of a world without a Form 1040, of Christmas mailboxes not jammed with tax forms, of an April that is daffodils and hyacinths, not deadlines and warnings.
Who cares about the Commerce Department? Secretary Ron Brown is an exceptionally frequent flier, and his entourages almost outnumber the populations of the countries he visits. But he's not taking up time and space in your daily life, is he?
Energy? Secretary Hazel O'Leary has come under heavy fire for traveling heavily. But she's bringing home business and she's not bothering you. She did a nice job on the substance of her work: exposing human radiation, putting the Pentagon in its place by insisting on a nuclear test ban. And she doesn't send you indecipherable documents with unintelligible instructions.
Here is an example of English prose, IRS style: "If your annuity starting date was after July 1, you may be able to change from the General Rule to the Simplified General Rule (or the other way around). For details, see Pub 575 or Pub 721."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., calls the IRS "the Gestapo agency," and that is how many taxpayers regard it.
People at the IRS are always thinking of new hoops for you to jump through. They always suspect the worst of you. The most recent wrinkle was a requirement that if you give a charity more than $250, you must get a letter swearing you got nothing of value in return.
Steve Forbes doesn't sound like a demagogue or rabble-rouser on the issue. He doesn't need to. He just says there is one federal program he will initiate, one that will retrain IRS bureaucrats. It brings the house down. And it rocks Bob Dole's dreamboat. It isn't too late for him to adjust his gunsight.
Universal Press Syndicate