Steve Forbes on Life and Liberty

Publisher Steve Forbes is emerging as a leading contender among potential presidential candidates for the pro-life vote. His recent endorsement of the Republican National Committee resolution denying funds to Republican candidates supporting partial birth abortion was the culmination of a months-long effort to solicit support among social conservatives. Forbes’s well-received address to the Christian Coalition last October, along with his speech, “The Moral Basis of a Free Society,” given at the Heritage Foundation later that month, surprised pro-lifers, especially considering his sometimes tepid statements on abortion in the 1996 presidential race. Forbes, thus far, appears successful in seizing some of the pro-life ground formerly belonging to Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan.

The editors of Crisis met with Forbes after his Heritage speech to clarify his position on a variety of issues, especially abortion. These remarks are excerpted from a longer interview on a variety of topics—immigration, corporate influence, Disney, welfare reform, labor, and education.

Of greatest concern to Crisis readers are his defense of three exceptions to an abortion ban: rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Steve Forbes has made a remarkable pilgrimage, reflecting seriously on abortion. On the vexing matters of rape and incest, he tends to fall in with the main currents of opinion in the country—which is to say he accepts them. Any political man will be compelled to make an accommodation with that passion, running deep in the public. As Lincoln once remarked, a sentiment that runs so widely and deeply in the public cannot safely be disregarded.

For pro-lifers, these exceptions always present a problem of coherence: Allowing exceptions to the sanctity of life on principle imperils the entire ground of the pro-life movement. If an accommodation must be made, we make that accommodation without endorsing these exceptions in principle. In the fullness of time, as he puts his hand to the task, we hope that there will be a congruence, steadily deepening, between Steve Forbes’s understanding and his conclusions. —The Editors


Mr. Forbes, we know you’re not an official candidate yet, but if you run, how would you address the apathy of Catholic voters in this country? Do you see your message having any special appeal to the very large Catholic voting block in this country?

I think that all voters—Catholic or Protestant—felt that, in the last election, the two parties didn’t put real differences on the table in a credible way. For example, when you take the tax issue, voters are naturally very skeptical: They remember promises made that were not kept.

So, if you’re going to propose a tax cut, you must spend a considerable amount of time and effort to convince people you mean what you say. If you just “hit and run” the issue, voters are going to take a cynical view and ignore your proposal. Republicans made that mistake in the ’96 campaign. They did not hammer the issue in their ads, and by the end of the campaign, I think most people had no idea what was meant by a 15% tax cut. That’s why the polls showed more voters thought Republicans would raise taxes than cut them. Voters think the parties are like Tweedle dee and Tweedle dum.

There are four things that we know Catholics in this country care about when they vote: abortion—which I’ll ask you about later—education, the family, and labor. Let’s go through these one by one, starting with labor. Where is the labor movement? What is your message to the labor voter in this country? Do you think the labor movement should take you seriously, and vote for you if you run?

If I run, I think I’d put out an agenda that would have a meaningful, positive impact on their lives, not only materially, but in the quality of their lives as well. I would give them choices that would allow them to keep the fruits of their labor. It would give them more opportunity to improve their lot in life. I think they’d see the opportunity to keep the maximum amount of their labor is very much a part of the American experiment.

So you would see yourself as pro-labor?

In the sense of allowing one’s labor to better one’s lot in life, definitely.

What about education? This seems to be an issue that really moves Catholics to the polls.

Well, I’ve always been an advocate of parental choice. If you feel that the school is not doing a proper job for your child, parents should have the opportunity to move their child to a better school—whether through charter schools, vouchers, or scholarships, there are ways of moving on the issue.

Are you worried about the impact on public education?

I think it improves public education. When there’s a sense of accountability to parents, lo and behold, performance improves. In Milwaukee, where they’ve been experimenting with school choice for close to five years now, not only are kids learning more, but public schools are considering reforms they never would have considered before the empowering of parents.

Speaking of the family, obviously you think your tax reform strategy has very direct positive impact on the family. Do you see tax reform as part of a larger social and economic message?

It’s all part and parcel, the heart of the American experiment. People must have a chance to improve their lot in life, they must be given responsibility over their lives, whether it’s choosing a spouse, where to live, what school your children attend, how your kids are raised, what career you pursue. We’re human, we’ll make mistakes, but the idea is that you don’t have to be directed from above.

And you think this will keep families together, keep husbands and wives married?

It’s one of the means, a critical means to an end. Obviously, there are other reforms: For example, I have mentioned before the need to shore up marriage in America. Marriage isn’t just an economic union; it’s not just choosing a car or what movie you’re seeing on Saturday night. We all know the stresses and strains that come in even the best marriages, and so society ought to reinforce the institution, instead of either being indifferent or treating it like a disposable tissue. The initiative must come from state and local institutions—the Federal government can’t do it. You see these movements, like Promise Keepers, which cut across religious lines—these are positive developments. The press may not have liked it sometimes, but the wives of these men say their marriages are better.

Now you’re going to be answering hundreds of questions about abortion. I’m going to phrase this as concisely as I can. You’re on the record as saying that life begins with conception, and ends with natural death. You’re also on the record as saying that you see three basic exceptions for that: rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Just how do you make the argument that the unborn child of rape and incest victims can be aborted without any moral or legal stricture?

Well, I think making the victim whole again has to take precedence. You can make a very strong, moral, and logical case that the baby ought to be brought to term, but as a person in a public square, I remember that Adams quote: A law will break the net. We’re talking about a fraction of 1% of the 1.3 million abortions that take place in this country. If we can reduce the numbers that much, I think we’ll make great progress in America, but we’ve got a long way to go before we reach that point.

Is that a point of prudence or principle for you?

It’s both. You’ve got to talk to the victims correctly. Rape goes beyond physical hurt, beyond the feeling that you’ve been violated because someone ripped off your purse or stole your property, broke in and went through your clothes in the house. It goes to the very soul. To tell a victim that the law requires them to bring this baby to term and be responsible for its upbringing is too much to ask.

My approach has always been to codify a consensus into law, then use that as a base to create a new consensus to move the issue further. For twenty-five years, legislatively, we’ve made virtually no progress. The partial birth abortion debate shows that you can renew the issue, you can gain broad based support. This makes the issue fluid again. If you can create a consensus on partial birth abortion, and other areas like parental consent, fetal tissue research, and late term abortions, you’ve got something moving again.

What are you going to say when people start shooting you this line: “Steve Forbes wants to take away a woman’s right to choose”? It’s a pretty effective political tool right now. How are you going to handle it?

The way I have before: by saying, I think abortion is a wrong, and I hope to persuade you of that. In the past, the issue has been either/or, which the Democrats love, because they win that way. We’ve got to ask, what do you mean by this? Is three months before natural birth legal? Three weeks? Three days? And once you get it down to, say, the first trimester, well, you see in the sonogram that it certainly looks like a baby is forming. Take it step by step, that’s the basic approach.

You have five daughters?


What’s the thing you would most like to influence for the better in the country in which your grandchildren will be raised?

I’d like to recover the sense that the spirit of the country is strong, recover a sense of who we are and where we’re going. Right now, people are lost; despite the material prosperity, they feel the boundaries and foundations shifting. They feel that somehow things are adrift. Our sense of what is right and what is wrong—and how we pursue those things—has been lost in the last thirty years. That’s what we must regain.

You are often seen as representing the libertarian camp of the Republican Party. If you could change the language that we use in our political debates, what terms would you like to see used and how would you understand them?

The left speaks in terms of freedom, by which they mean complete freedom of behavior. We need to return to the original formulation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, understanding those terms properly and in the right order. Madison said if we were angels, we wouldn’t need government. Well, we’re not angels. Therefore, how do you have a government that serves the people instead of becoming an instrument of oppression? How do you have a government that can respond to people without giving in to mob passions? These questions are the very basis of legitimate democratic order.


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