Steve Forbes

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

The flat tax man is in for the long haul

by Beth Rowen

This article was posted on December 3, 1999.


Steve Forbes

"When I ran four years ago, virtually every Republican denounced the flat tax," Forbes has said, "so education works."

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The Long Haul

Winning the Republican nomination is undoubtedly a long shot for multimillionaire publisher Steve Forbes, but he plans to be in the race for the long haul.

Both Forbes and Gov. George W. Bush have accumulated sizable war chests. Unlike former Republican candidates Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle, and Lamar Alexander— who have bowed out of the race mostly due to depleted (and meager) campaign coffers— Forbes can draw on his personal fortune to finance a lengthy campaign.

Promoting a Flat Tax

Even if he never makes it to the oval office, Forbes has succeeded in using the campaign trail and his vast fortune to promote his political agenda. And his ideas seem to be catching on; in the October 28 Republican debate, all of the other candidates, except Bush (who was a no-show) said they favored some form of a flat tax. "When I ran four years ago, virtually every Republican denounced the flat tax," Forbes said, "so education works."

House Majority Leader Dick Armey has long supported the system. In general, small-government advocates favor the flat tax, as it ostensibly eliminates the regulation-heavy, byzantine system now in place.

"We want to cut taxes and return the money to the people who earned it," Forbes said in a recent New Hampshire campaign speech. Critics, however, contend that a flat tax would line the pockets of the rich at the expense of low- and middle-income taxpayers.

Towing the Republican Line

While he's best known for his flat tax proposal, which distinguished him in the 1996 race, Forbes' views tow the Republican line. He favors school vouchers, privatization of Social Security, medical savings accounts instead of HMOs, less federal government, and unlike 1996, when he was neutral on abortion, he has become staunchly pro-life. His indifference on the issue in 1996 cost him votes from the religious right. This time around, he seems to be making an effort to court social conservatives.

Forbes listening to school children.

Forbes continues to garner media coverage not so much for his platform, but for the millions he lavishes on his campaign out of his own pocket. He spent around $800,000 on the Iowa straw poll to essentially buy votes and to shelter supporters from August's oppressive heat in his air-conditioned tent. He placed fourth, with 4,921 votes. In the 1996 race, he spent more than $35 million. He's expected to spend another $50 million on this race. (His net worth is estimated at $440 million.)

Hard-hitting Ads

Several million dollars will be spent on television ads. In 1996, Forbes unleashed a series of scathing, hard-hitting television ads that nearly destroyed Bob Dole, and by all accounts weakened the former senator’s chances against President Clinton. In the end, though, the withering ads cost Forbes votes. He has hinted that he'll launch a similar mean-spirited attack on Bush, who has said he plans to take the high road and focus on the issues.

Forbes dropped out of the 1996 race in March, but not before winning the primaries in Arizona and Delaware. Though he was out of the race, he never left the stump. In August 1996, he formed Americans for Hope, Growth, and Opportunity, a nonprofit advocacy organization, to further promote his agenda in the off season. He pumped $100,000 of his own into the group, and raised another $14 million from a reported 140,000 supporters.

An Outsider Who Wants In

Forbes has an advantage over the other leading Republican hopefuls, Bush and Sen. John McCain. While both claim to be Washington outsiders, Forbes truly is. He has never been elected to anything, though President Reagan did appoint him to the Board for International Broadcasting, where he headed the operation of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Other than sitting on the boards of educational and conservative organizations, Forbes' entire professional career has been with his family's empire, Forbes Inc.

"I'm the only one who is not beholden to the Washington culture of special interest lawyers, lobbyists, and life-time politicians," Forbes said in a recent speech.

The Family Business

Forbes with daughter Elizabeth.

He was born Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Jr., on July 18, 1947 in Morristown, N.J. He attended the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., and Princeton, where he established Business Today, a quarterly magazine that's still published. He graduated in 1970 and then served five months active duty in the National Guard. He was a reservist for six years. He married Sabina Beekman in 1971. They have five daughters.

He took his first job with Forbes Inc. in 1971 as a researcher, and became a columnist in 1973. He worked in several departments, including advertising and administration, before he became president and chief operating officer in 1980. When his father, Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Sr., died in 1990, Steve become president and CEO and inherited 51 percent of the voting shares and 35 percent of the capital stock of Forbes Inc. (He has reportedly sold off shares to finance his campaign and now holds less than 50 percent of the voting shares.) The company flourished under his leadership, expanding its stable of newspapers in New Jersey, adding a Chinese-language edition of the company's flagship, Forbes, and several other supplements.

If only becoming chief executive of the United States was as easy as becoming CEO of a family business.

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