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Class Warfare Is Off-Target, Hypocritical

GOP candidates should focus on ideas, not attack Forbes just because he is wealthy. Pullquote:

February 11, 1996|MICHAEL HUFFINGTON | Michael Huffington is a former Republican congressman from Santa Barbara

Move over, Lenin. Take a seat, Marx. Make way for the new class warriors: the Republican presidential candidates of 1996.

In hopes of derailing Steve Forbes, Republican rivals are resorting to class cliches. Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan are using the sort of language that might make even a populist like David Bonior blush, referring to Forbes as "Richie Rich," "the person who goes to work in a helicopter," "one of the boys at the yacht club" or "a zillionaire."

But stirring class envy will not jump-start their stalled campaigns, not just because Forbes has demonstrated his willingness to fight fire with fire, but also because voters will ultimately see such arguments for what they are: hypocritical, diversionary and deeply un-American.

Let me begin with a disclosure. I know all of the men running for the Republican nomination except Iowa businessman Morry Taylor. I met them as a congressman, and it is doubtful that I would have undertaken my 1994 bid for the Senate without the encouragement and active support of Dole and Gramm. I always will remember their efforts on my behalf in California.

Each of the candidates is basically a good man. Each has positive ideas and admirable qualities. They have every right to criticize Steve Forbes for his flat tax plan if they truly believe it to be the precursor to economic Armageddon, as their ads suggest. Even his record as a private citizen, running Forbes magazine, is fair game.

But for Republican candidates to jump on Forbes for having money is outrageous. Not only does it fly in the face of everything Republicans claim to believe in--economic opportunity and private property--but it insults many of those whom these candidates call on for financial support. Would these same Republican candidates who now attack Forbes as "filthy rich" have considered his money so unclean as to have rejected it if he had offered to write them a check for their campaigns? Apparently their attitude is, give us your money but leave politics to us professionals. If Republican candidates truly find wealth so offensive, they should return every check they have collected from wealthy contributors, forgo every plane ride proffered aboard a corporate jet and turn every $1,000-a-pop private reception into a barbecue rally for all. How else can they protect their political purity from capitalism's ugly advances?

Here is a simpler alternative: Stick with the issues. The real bottom line in this political season is what each candidate plans to do on the economy, on education, on crime and in Bosnia--not Forbes' bank account.

Forbes is right when he calls such carping over his tax returns a diversion. Americans are far less interested in what's in other people's tax returns than they are in getting some tax relief of their own. Indeed, what must take the prize for the biggest political joke of the season is the claim that Forbes is out there slogging through the campaign trails of New Hampshire, spending millions of his own money, just so he can get a break on his taxes when he becomes president and institutes a flat tax. As Forbes said, "I will spend 200 times what I would save on the flat tax on this campaign."

Candidates of good conscience can have honest disagreements over specific provisions of the Forbes flat tax plan. But the sight of Republicans resorting to class rhetoric to attack the plan raises larger questions. Do Republicans believe that government should redistribute income? That having wealth is a punishable offense, subject to confiscation of property? That being rich is a crime? In attempting to obliterate Forbes, Republicans may succeed in committing political suicide by questioning the very free-market values on which our party depends.

Ultimately, Republicans should reject class-envy arguments, not because they are bad for the party but because they are bad for America. What separates Republicans from Democrats is that we do not seek to make the rich poorer but to make the poor richer. Last time I checked, that was the essence of the American Dream.

Every American child, rich or poor, black or white, male or female, should be able to aspire to grow up to be a successful magazine publisher--or the president of the United States. If Republican principles are held through conviction rather than convenience, then the GOP should be unapologetic about celebrating success, expanding that opportunity to every American. The first rule of American politics is to stay on message. It's high time that Republicans returned to theirs.

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