Newt Gingrich and Steve Forbes crossed paths at the International Conservative Congress in Washington, D.C., last month. They may be crossing paths in New Hampshire next year, for Mr. Forbes is running hard for the Republican nomination, while Speaker Gingrich thinks of himself in Presidential terms. What of Mr. Gingrich’s travails? He will tell visitors that George Washington had problems, too, and add a little lecture on Horatio Gates and the Conway Cabal.
The Speaker gave a clear and focused talk, ticking off the points of a G.O.P. agenda. The simplest was the newsworthiest: “Obey the law.” With three little words, he took aim at the corruption of the Democratic campaign of 1996.
Fred Thompson and his Senate committee have dropped the ball on this, but it hardly matters, because the newspapers keep picking it up. The latest is the matter of the White House videotapes. Like clips filmed by a security camera in an A.T.M., we have the fuzzy, bobbling footage of the leader of the free world, shaking the hands of contributors, prior to shaking them down, at White House coffees (one of them in the Oval Office). In one shot, a guest tells the President that she was sent by the Riadys, the Indonesian family that pumped money into his coffers; in another, a different guest thrusts five checks at Don Fowler, then head of the Democratic National Committee, who tells the enthusiastic influence-buyer that he will handle it later (meaning, probably, when the cameras are off). When will Presidents learn? No taping-no taping-no taping .
The tapes did not look good for Attorney General Janet Reno, who told the world, a day before they appeared, that there was no reason to unleash an independent counsel on Bill Clinton’s fund-raising activities. At this point, Ms. Reno’s only defense against the charge of covering for the President is incompetence. But her incompetence is so gross and palpable, that honor may be preserved after all.
Speaking of grossness, then there are the teamsters. All the keyboard-punching white-collar friends of the working man who hailed International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Ron Carey and his victory over United Parcel Service must now glumly stare at the evidence: teamster funds raided to support Mr. Carey’s own re-election; discussions between the teamsters and the D.N.C. over ways and means of laundering money back and forth. Mr. Carey has revived the good name of the Hoffas. By the way, the big issue in the U.P.S. strike was union control over the U.P.S. workers’ pension plan. In light of recent disclosures, that money looks like one more potential kitty for labor bosses and the Democratic Party.
It isn’t just the big time. The Senate finally ratified Mary Landrieu’s election as Senator from Louisiana, largely because the witnesses to vote-buying mustered by the losing Republican, Woody Jenkins, turned out to be crooks. (Investigating corruption in New Orleans is like trying mobsters, where every witness for the prosecution must begin by admitting that he murdered about 19 people.) But the defeat of Representative Robert Dornan, Republican of California, still hangs fire, since there is evidence that the 980-vote margin of his loss was more than exceeded by the number of illegally registered Mexican nationals. This is an advance over President Clinton, who takes money from foreigners at the White House. In southern California, Democrats encourage foreigners to vote.
It will be interesting to see how the President’s defenders cope with their mounting labors. In their desperation, they have even discovered original intent: The 19th-century law that prohibits fund-raising on Federal property had nothing to do with phone calls Maybe the next defense will be that the independent counsel law violates the separation of powers. William Jefferson Clinton may make Jeffersonians of his supporters yet.
Steve Forbes spoke the day before the Speaker. His road map to success is to lay out a series of issues, like an A.A.A. travel itinerary, and then follow it doggedly.
The last time I spoke with Mr. Forbes, he still cherished the hope that Jack Kemp might run for President in 2000. His cherishing days are done, to judge by his appropriation of elements of the Kemp persona. The worshiper has stepped into his idol’s shoes. Mr. Forbes sounded the Kempian theme that this is the eve of the best of all possible eras. He even used a football metaphor: “When you get sacked,” he said of the G.O.P., “you don’t leave the field, you run another play.” Unlike his master, he stuck to his text, and finished on time. Mr. Kemp had the glamour, and the indiscipline, of a supermodel. Mr. Forbes has the brisk efficiency of a makeup artist.
Conservatives have been buzzing about Mr. Forbes’ efforts to reach out to the Christian Right. In Washington, he called for yet another ban on partial birth abortions, and said it should begin “the process of persuasion” that will lead to an abortion-free America. The use of the word “persuasion” suggests that there are abortions that the law would not prohibit. That is essentially the position he expressed during his last campaign. But the emphasis is different. Then, it was an answer he gave if you asked, a distraction from the main business at hand. Now it is one of the points he leads with. He knows he can never win with moralizing conservatives, but he can be a runner-up.
Mr. Forbes got a bounce from Congress’s hearings into the I.R.S. In three days, the G.O.P. unexpectedly generated more heat than months of Senator Thompson’s creeping through the thickets of campaign finance. Campaign finance reform is an abstract good-sure, we’d like it, but how many of us actually run for office? Answer: a lot fewer of us than pay taxes. Recently, William Kristol and David Brooks asked in The Wall Street Journal how conservatives could love their nation but hate their government. Conservatives-and normal Americans-don’t hate Iwo Jima or the Alamo or the cop on the beat. But they do get pretty antsy around April 15. Steve Forbes has been saying like a broken answering machine that the I.R.S. should be killed, and a stake should be driven through its heart. If tax simplification takes hold as an issue, Mr. Forbes is ideally positioned to profit from it.
Steve Forbes’ problem is his lack of experience. But when you look at the people with experience, you see why Republicans listen to Mr. Forbes. The G.O.P. field looks like parts of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, thick with trees that only rise to knee level. In a landscape like that, Steve Forbes and Newt Gingrich can dream.