Remember when it seemed that the “war on terror” would dominate our politics forever? Remember when militant Islam was “the transcendent issue of our time,” as John McCain said about a million times in 2008? How often have you heard a Republican candidate discuss the transcendent issue of our time in the current campaign?
Terrorism’s disappearance as a political issue has been nearly as striking as George W. Bush’s erasure from conservatism’s consciousness. It’s hard to imagine a conservative blogger now describing Bush as “a man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius” and a man “ahead of his time.” Yet one did describe Bush with just those words, and without irony, in an infamous post in 2005.
With the vanishing of Bush 43 and the humiliation of McCain in 2008, it’s left to Ronald Reagan to rally the GOP. The advantage of relying on a leader who died nearly a decade ago is that dead men don’t talk, and memories are short. He can be whatever you want him to be. So the Reagan of Republican mythology has become a tax-cutting, budget balancing, government-slashing warrior, though Reagan was nothing of the sort. He signed into law the largest corporate income tax increase in U.S. history in 1986, the largest peacetime tax increase to that point in 1982, and a raise in payroll tax rates in 1983, all while expanding the federal government and ballooning the national debt. It was Reagan, as Dick Cheney once helpfully pointed out, who taught that GOP that deficits don’t matter. Cheney and Bush learned the lesson well.
What’s interesting about the GOP’s obsession with the Reagan myth is that a man who is far closer to the Party’s current policy positions – and who is very much alive and globe-trotting – is mostly forgotten. That man is Steve Forbes – a man who, in his primary campaigns in 1996 and 2000, pioneered all the distinctive traits of the current candidates. He displayed the inarticulateness of Rick Perry, the grand theorizing of Newt Gingrich, the corporate phoniness of Mitt Romney, the general weirdness of Michele Bachmann, the governing inexperience of Herman Cain, and the out-of-left field policy positions of Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.
Forbes is remembered mainly for popularizing the flat-tax idea still the rage Republicans (although Herman Cain’s 9−9−9 tax plan has died with his candidacy), but the flat tax is just one manifestation of a mindset that now dominates the GOP. It’s summed up in the slogan of Forbes magazine: Capitalist Tool.
Forbes’s campaigns were to the GOP what Ralph Nader’s and Dennis Kucinich’s campaigns were to the Democrats: a prod, pushing the parties toward places that the mainstream candidates couldn’t go. Those campaigns by Forbes were always dark jokes, and Forbes was something of a comedic genius. You could imagine him in the plush recesses of his private jet, snickering as he plotted his policy platform: cutting taxes for the wealthy, hiking taxes on everyone else, privatizing Social Security, abolishing the “death tax,” and bringing back the gold standard. It was the capitalist tool’s ultimate fantasy.
The fact that he seemed to be in on the joke made the dark comedy all the more delicious. Forbes was Stephen Colbert without the irony, never bothering to pretend that he was anything more than a servant of the wealthy. Because, why bother when everyone knew that you had no chance of winning? “Yes, I am talking crazy up here,” Forbes’s smile suggested. “Yes, I am a tool and a total goof. And yes, it’s hard to believe that anyone takes me seriously. But having bought my way into the thick of this thing, I’ll say whatever I damn well please.”
Meantime, the GOP’s legitimate candidates had to act as if the Party had plans other than making the rich richer and the poor poorer. George W. Bush was especially deft at that game, promising tax cuts for everyone and making compassionate conservatism a central theme of his campaign. And then, in the wake of 9⁄11, economic issues receded and the threat of terrorism dominated the presidential election of 2004 and much of the 2008 cycle, until the bank emergency in the fall of that year put the focus back on the economy.
We’re still dealing with reverberations from that meltdown, of course, and because the economy is Barack Obama’s greatest vulnerability and foreign policy is his greatest strength, the GOP’s attention in the current campaign has been devoted largely to economic policy. And what a revelation that has been.
The current crop of GOP candidates don’t quite get the Forbes joke. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the joke’s premise – which is that serious candidates for the presidency can’t run on crazy ideas and hope to be elected – is no longer valid. It was Steve Forbes, not George W. Bush, who was ahead of his time.
Because saying crazy things in public is apparently now a prerequisite for winning right-wing voters. They expect candidates to tell them with a straight face that taxes can never be raised, that defense spending can never be too high, that climate change isn’t happening, and that a nine percent flat tax is a fair tax.
They want, in short, to live in Steve Forbes’s fantasy. It’s not because they want the rich get richer. It’s because, in that world, you can believe whatever you want to believe with no accountability to actual evidence. If allowing corporate tools to rig the game for the wealthy is the price one pays to live in that fantasy, so be it.
History supposedly repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce. But the modern GOP has reversed that truism. Forbes was the farce. Forbes’s heirs in the 2012 campaign are the tragedy.
Yet one of them will be the GOP’s nominee and possibly our next president. The dark joke, it turns out, is on us.