Flat tax candidate Forbes' favorite issue: Other GOP contenders back away, see devils in the details.; CAMPAIGN 1996


STEVE FORBES is now the recipient of the finest form of flattery a long-shot political candidate can have: Attack, attack and attack. Front-runner Bob Dole is on the attack, finally responding to a fusillade of hostile TV ads from the magazine publisher. Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan and Phil Gramm are on the attack, sensing that the Forbes surge reduces their chances of grabbing the coveted No. 2 finish in Iowa and New Hampshire. Even Fortune magazine is on the attack, accusing Forbes magazine and its namesake publisher of violating "journalism ethics" in allowing big advertisers to influence stories.

Were his presidential campaign based on the current fixtures of Republican oratory -- government spending, abortion, family values -- Mr. Forbes' delight in his sudden prominence would be unvarnished. Yet his candidacy has a narrow ideological base that could yet prove its undoing -- and quickly. He is an advocate of an extreme version of the flat tax, an idea with initial appeal until the devil leaps out of the details. Under the Forbes version of the flat tax, all earnings above $35,000 for a family of four would be taxed at a single rate of 17 percent.

But. . .but. . .BUT. . .BUT -- all income from interest, dividends, capital gains and inheritance would end up scot free of taxes. Gone is that admirable Bill Bradley concept that all income should be taxed alike. For a millionaire four hundred times over like Steve Forbes, his plan would provide a tax break he himself estimates as high as $150,000 a year! True enough, he is spending many times that on his self-financed campaign but this cannot disguise the fact that his proposal is a rich man's dream.

No wonder Lamar Alexander terms it a "truly nutty idea;" that Pat Buchanan says it would be great for the "boys at the yacht basin;" that Phil Gramm says it would cut revenues and explode the deficit, and that Bob Dole cannot resist a gibe about Mr. Forbes' inherited fortune.

Most important, no wonder the GOP commission headed by Mr. Forbes' political soulmate, Jack Kemp, is today issuing a report likely to back away from a specific flat tax recommendation. The Dole campaign saw it as a booby trap made to order for Democratic exploitation. A flat tax has its enticements, not least the promise of simplicity, but it is hardly the winning issue Mr. Forbes thinks it is.

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