By all accounts, Sen. John McCain has won the presidential “expectations” game that Steve Forbes did not. Such a test didn’t really even exist until 1972, when Sen. George McGovern achieved a surprisingly strong second-place finish (22.6 percent) behind front-runner Sen. Edmund Muskie (35.5 percent) in Iowa’s inaugural caucuses. Mr. McGovern’s performance there led to his subsequent upset of Mr. Muskie in the New Hampshire primary and the end of Mr. Muskie’s once-formidable campaign. Perhaps not coincidentally the media have evolved into the unofficial arbiters of this contest.
Last week, Mr. McCain clearly exceeded expectations when he defeated Republican front-runner George W. Bush in New Hampshire, and the media appropriately took notice. On Tuesday, following a week in which Mr. McCain had been the beneficiary of more free media attention, including the covers of all three news weeklies, than any amount of campaign expenditures could ever match, Mr. Bush trounced Mr. McCain in the Delaware primary. Mr. Bush more than doubled Mr. McCain’s vote tally, defeating him 51 percent to 25 percent, a margin that was six points bigger than Mr. McCain’s New Hampshire victory. And how did the media react? By virtually declaring Mr. McCain the winner of Delaware’s expectations primary. After a few more expectations “defeats” like this one, Mr. Bush will have won the Republican nomination.
Mr. Bush’s victory not only captured all of Delaware’s convention delegates; it also permanently vanquished Steve Forbes, his most serious conservative challenger, who aimed most of his television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire at Mr. Bush. That makes Mr. Bush’s Delaware victory all the more important. For all the tough ads Mr. Forbes ran in opposition to Mr. Bush’s five-year, $483 billion tax-cut plan, one can only imagine what he would have said if he directed his fire at Mr. McCain’s minuscule five-year, $86 billion net tax cut. Mr. Forbes’ reluctance to declare his support for one of the remaining candidates is especially difficult to understand, given that he has been so determined to affect the nomination process that he has twice offered his own candidacy. If tax cuts are the standard here, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out which candidate deserves Mr. Forbes’ support.
Mr. Forbes, who failed to meet or exceed expectations in Iowa, New Hampshire and Delaware, officially withdrew from the Republican contest Thursday. The media, as expected, have been having a field day tallying up Mr. Forbes’ expenditures in pursuit of the 1996 and 2000 Republican presidential nomination, concluding that Mr. Forbes wasted the $70 million he spent from his personal fortune.
Mr. Forbes’ electoral fortunes did not directly benefit from his expenditure. But the country certainly has. During the five years Mr. Forbes has been directly or indirectly pursuing the presidency, he has managed to put into political play more than a few important ideas, ranging from his flat-tax proposal to school choice to privatization of a portion of Social Security to medical savings accounts. Mr. Forbes’ pursuit of the nomination this time around required his Republican competitors to offer some of the most detailed tax-reduction proposals that prospective primary voters have ever seen. He may not be the most charismatic politician, but he has displayed a commendable, strongly held belief that ideas do matter.
“I think we changed the dialogue,” Mr. Forbes asserted yesterday. Indeed he has, and probably at a bargain price. What a welcome addition this man of ideas would make to the U.S. Senate, which fancies itself the world’s greatest deliberative body.