Forbes flies in face of hard right

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

If one thing distinguishes the campaign of Steve Forbes (apart, that is, from saturation bombing by negative advertising) it is the candidate's remarkable ability to "stay on message" - namely, to bring almost any political interrogation back to the flat-tax proposal that has been the launch-pad for his success.

But no media spotlight is brighter than that which zeroes in on a surprise front-runner for his party's nomination and it is gradually illuminating the views of the publishing multi-millionaire on issues other than his 17 per cent tax rate for all. Somewhat surprisingly, what emerges is a man in the mainstream of the party on foreign affairs and very much on its tolerant, quasi-libertarian wing on social matters.

On the litmus issue of abortion for instance, so important for the religious right that wields influence in the Republican primaries, Mr Forbes plainly fails the test. He does support notifying the parents of under-age mothers and the outlawing of late-term abortions, but says other changes will require a shift in the attitudes of average Americans first: in other words, no constitutional amendment banning abortion.

On homosexuals in the military, Mr Forbes backs the "don't ask, don't tell" approach of Bill Clinton, far removed from the rigid opposition of Republican conservatives like Jesse Helms of North Carolina, some of whose advisers help Mr Forbes. On same-sex marriages, Mr Forbes described himself as "hopelessly conventional; if people want to live together, that's fine - but compassion is not approval." Again, a tolerance not always found in Republican ranks.

In foreign policy, Mr Forbes is an economic internationalist (as befits a man whose company owns a home in London, a chateau in France and a palace in Morocco). He supports free trade. He has not embraced the hardline anti-immigration policies of "America First" conservatives like Pat Buchanan.

On defence and security matters, however, he is less forthright. He favours the deployment of American troops abroad only where vital US interests are at stake. Bosnia, he says, does not meet that criterion. Far better to allow the Muslims to obtain arms and fend for themselves.

In short, Forbes the politician combines the supply-side zeal of his mentor, Jack Kemp, the former Bush cabinet member, with the "keep government out of the pocket book and out of the bedroom" philosophy of men like the Governor of Massachusetts, William Weld. Unlike Mr Forbes, Messrs Weld and Kemp decided not to run for president in 1996.

But everything comes back to economics and the flat tax. In America, he tells audiences in Iowa (where an estimated 40 per cent of caucus participants are from the religious right) that economics and values are part and parcel of one another. Get the economy moving and values will take care of themselves.

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