The Wall Street Journal

The end of the Steve Forbes campaign came only after many jokes among the cognoscenti about the candidate’s profligacy with the family fortune and about the Forbes 2000 staff’s ceaseless barrage of news releases about their man’s progress. Some were beyond parody: “November 08, 1999 — forbes endorsed by two-time buchanan republican convention delegate.”

But the Forbes campaign is not just the story of a wealthy man with ambitions out of proportion to realistic expectations. It also marks the end of a chapter in American politics.

Mr. Forbes was the last of the true believers. He offered himself to the Republican primary electorate as the living embodiment of the conservative cause, in the hope that conservatives nationwide would be drawn to him because of the strength of his ideas. It is easy to laugh at his defeat and the political miscalculation underlying it. But to do so mismeasures a man who was actually willing, in this day and age, to pledge his life, his fortune and his sacred honor for what he believes in.

It’s important to understand the apolitical or perhaps antipolitical character of Mr. Forbes’s appeal. He ran against politics as usual, of course, but that’s what we expect of outsiders — and these days of insiders, too. But really, what on earth ever led a magazine publisher to think he could get himself elected president without first being elected to so much as the local school board? Why didn’t he run for the Senate from New Jersey? (Or for that matter, carpetbag over to New York?)

For Mr. Forbes and his supporters, the answer could only have been that a candidate’s political experience is nothing next to his willingness clearly and forthrightly to champion the conservative cause. Ideas trump politics, in this view — or perhaps a better formulation is that conservative ideas are all the politics you need. Forbes-style conservatism is populist to the core, speaking honestly to the people in the name of the people, with the expectation that when the people hear the message, they will embrace it.

This populist outlook — if you build it, they will come — used to be an article of faith among conservative Republicans. The public’s massive rightward tilt over time seemed to foretell a moment, perhaps imminent, at which conservatism would triumph by vanquishing its opponents once and for all. The election of a Republican Congress in 1994 looked to true believers like the penultimate step in a process of political realignment that, with the election of a Republican president, would usher in a period of conservative dominance to match the reign of New Deal liberalism.

Gradually, however, the ranks of the true believers thinned — not because their political views changed, in most cases, but because their view of political possibility changed. From the disappointment of the government shutdown strategy of 1995-96, to the failure of conservative Phil Gramm to make any headway toward the GOP nomination in 1996, to the growing unpopularity of Newt Gingrich, to the disappointment of the Dole campaign, to the public indifference to the Clinton scandals, to the surprising loss of House seats in 1998 — and in innumerable other events along the way — conservatism’s populist claims took a beating.

Many politically active conservatives accordingly abandoned those claims. Some just gave up on their former faith in the people’s willingness to respond favorably to a straightforward conservative message. Some reserved their anger for Republican politicians newly unwilling to sound and act like conservatives.

Steve Forbes made the last stand. It can only have pained him to see so many people turn their backs on his campaign when he knew they agreed with him on every issue. They abandoned him not for some other, more attractive conservative candidate, but in the interest of finding an electable nominee — an implicit acknowledgment that conservatism cannot speak in its own name and succeed. George W. Bush may now be emphasizing his conservative positions, but he is no ideologue. For many conservatives, this is not a liability but a source of attraction.

Yet all is not lost for conservatives. If the American electorate is not, indeed, open and receptive to a staunchly conservative message, it has hardly become wildly enthusiastic for the liberal vision either.

Education, every poll shows, now tops voters’ list of concerns. Very well, then: Which candidate proposes to shut down incompetent and corrupt local school boards, to adopt a national curriculum, to nationalize and equalize school funding? The answer is, the same candidate who has recruited Ira Magaziner to dust off Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan. That is to say, no one. Bill Bradley’s progressive call to arms seems to have less resonance with voters than his stepped-up attacks on the Clinton administration’s deficient ethics.

To judge by the cumulative weight of the administration’s current proposals, one could almost be forgiven for concluding that today’s political project is to identify all areas of public concern and then devise the smallest plausible incremental means of addressing them. This incrementalism is no accident. It is an acknowledgement by shrewd Democrats of what the Forbes campaign also demonstrated. This electorate is very conservative — not in the sense that it is demanding conservative change, but in that it is resistant to change altogether. Small steps are the bread and butter of politics now; radical measures are not acceptable. The guiding principle is Hippocratic: Do no harm.

Surely, this is in large measure a product of current conditions of peace and prosperity. The message from voters is: Don’t screw it up. Two decades ago voters were willing to embrace the conservative reforms that freed the economy from stagflation at home and decline abroad. But we are currently experiencing neither stagflation nor decline, and voters’ preferences have changed accordingly.

It’s instructive that campaign finance — the central issue of so self-consciously reformist a candidate as Sen. John McCain — is a matter of process, not policy. Even more revealing is Mr. McCain’s terrific joke about propping up a deceased Alan Greenspan in dark glasses, a la “Weekend at Bernie’s,” in order to trick the world into believing he’s still in charge of monetary policy. Could there be a warmer embrace of the status quo?

This is a time for such prosaic qualities as steadiness, solidity and credibility with the financial markets. It’s not a time for crusades, sadly for Mr. Forbes.