The Right-Winger to Watch
Slap a floppy hat and a pair of oversized sunglasses on Gary Bauer and he would be the spitting image of the late Truman Capote: Standing just over five-feet tall, Bauer has a broad, round, vaguely cherubic face; a high forehead; heavy eyelids; a fair complexion; and something vaguely prim about the mouth. Squint a little, and you can almost picture him in 1970s New York partying with Andy Warhol and Paloma Picasso at Studio 54.But a physical resemblance is as far as the parallels go. A former Reagan White House official and the current head of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council, Bauer is about as far from Capote on the political and social spectrum as Jesse Helms is from Gianni Versace. A vocal advocate of "pro-family" policies on issues ranging from child care to taxes, Bauer is the quintessential social conservative. He opposes abortion, gun control, gay rights, no-fault divorce, women in military combat, bilingual education, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He supports school choice, school prayer, abstinence-only sex ed, the death penalty, an increase in the per-child tax credit, tougher obscenity laws, and tax breaks for stay-at-home spouses. Though a long-time Republican, Bauer shares none of his party colleagues' current obsession with cultivating a "big-tent" image for the GOP. He is an unapologetic ideologue, as one might surmise from the Family Research Council's (FRC) stated mission: "to reaffirm and promote nationally, and particularly in Washington, D.C., the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system upon which it is built."But Gary Bauer is no run-of-the-mill right-winger. Unlike many conservative Republicans, this pro-family crusader does not engage in knee-jerk government bashing. (In fact, he and close chum William Kristol, editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard, are derided as "big-government conservatives" by some of their colleagues on the right.) Although he shares many of the GOP's ideas about keeping government hands off the American family, Bauer recognizes that Uncle Sam can at times be useful in advancing a conservative social agenda. As a result, over the past year or so Bauer and FRC have been generating waves in Washington with their decidedly un-Republican opposition to policy proposals such as Social Security privatization, the flat tax, and free trade with China. Moreover, in gathering support for his causes, Bauer has proved willing to cross party lines and enlist a number of unconventional allies -- from House minority leader Dick Gephardt to liberal matriarch Ethel Kennedy to the AFL-CIO. His willingness to form such coalitions has drawn the attention of the mainstream media -- "It's sort of a man bites dog sort of story," explains Bauer -- helping to make the FRC chief a regular on the pundit circuit. In recent months Bauer has squared off on-air against opponents as diverse as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the president of the Motion Picture Association, Jack Valenti.Bauer's outspokenness has also upped his profile on the Hill. In addition to tweaking Reps. Armey and Gingrich over their economic priorities, Bauer has not been shy about dressing down the GOP for abandoning the social conservatives who helped sweep it into the majority in '94. All too often, laments Bauer, Republican candidates sound defensive and apologetic when addressing the nation's "virtue deficit." During the past two presidential campaigns, he notes, "the American public never heard the social conservatives' world view at all."To Republicans' discomfort, Bauer's criticism reflects a growing discontent among the party's religious and social conservatives (nearly half a million of whom, incidentally, are members of FRC). "There is tremendous concern among the pro-moral community that all of the promises that were made in the inspirational speeches that Republicans gave in 1994 just sort of went away," says James Dobson, the conservative Christian radio host and president of the 2.2 million-member Focus on the Family. "Now, Christian voters feel betrayed and abandoned." Spurred by this dissatisfaction with electoral politics, Bauer has taken matters into his own hands. In late 1996, he put together a political action committee, called the Campaign for Working Families (CWF), aimed at supporting candidates who promote pro-life, pro-family values. The PAC's fund-raising success -- a whopping $2.6 million in 1997 -- has turned more than a few heads inside the Beltway. (Nothing gets Washington's attention quite like the ability to raise money.)Of course, combine a flair for fund-raising with a significant media presence and what do you get? A potential presidential candidate. And sure enough, Bauer is making noises about a run for the White House in 2000 -- noises that have not been especially well received by other presidential wannabes courting the social-conservative vote. For people like former Vice President Dan Quayle and Sen. John Ashcroft, Bauer could pose a real threat in the primaries. In addition to his sizable FRC constituency, he has close ties to numerous other social-conservative groups, including the Republican National Coalition for Life and FRC's former parent organization, Dobson's Focus on the Family. What's more, although the money Bauer's PAC is pulling in can't be transferred to a presidential campaign, its list of generous contributors would certainly come in handy for candidate Bauer.Even should Bauer opt not to run this time around, Republicans and Democrats alike would do well to keep close tabs on him. With the once-formidable Christian Coalition undergoing a major identity (and funding) crisis, Bauer and FRC are well-positioned to become the new spokesmen for die-hard social conservatives. And all those disgruntled pro-family folks pouring money into FRC and the Campaign for Working Families could go a long way toward shaping future congressional and presidential elections -- whether Gary Bauer is actually in the race or simply calling the plays from the sidelines.True BelieverThe December 22 cover story of Bauer-pal Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard says it all. There, in all his cartoon glory, is a caricature of Gary Bauer sporting royal blue tights, a red cape, and a giant "S" on his puffed-out chest. The accompanying cover line reads, "Bauer Power: Gary Bauer, Washington's Most Formidable Conservative."The magazine's message, though perhaps a bit over-the-top, nonetheless speaks to Bauer's relatively recent arrival as a major political player in D.C. It's not that Bauer is a newcomer to national politics. A veteran of the Reagan administration, he served in the upper echelons of both the Education Department and the White House. But even back then, many of the Gipper's advisers considered Bauer decidedly unsavvy, a little too fixated on moral issues to be a real player. This was particularly true during Reagan's second term, recalls American Enterprise Institute scholar Dinesh D'Souza, an aide to Bauer during his stint as domestic policy adviser. "Gary was seen as this nerdy little fellow who kept talking about divisive social issues -- quixotic, extreme, dogmatic," says D'Souza. Even after the Iran-Contra scandal broke and the policy at the White House became "do nothing, keep your head down, and ride out the second term," Bauer refused to stop pushing on social issues. As a result, says D'Souza, he was ostracized by much of the staff.But Bauer's unwillingness to back away from his social agenda caught the eye of Focus on the Family's James Dobson. Dobson had dealt with Bauer at both the Education Department and the White House and was impressed with "the depth of Bauer's commitment" to conservative values. "I saw him at the White House during the latter years of the administration when many conservatives had been purged or voluntarily left," says Dobson. "I knew there was a great deal of pressure on Gary, and yet he did not compromise on what he believed." In 1988, at Dobson's request, Bauer left the administration to take the reins at the Family Research Council, at that time a direct branch of Focus on the Family.It was at the helm of FRC, Bauer's colleagues say, that he discovered his true talent: coalition building. His work gathering like-minded pro-family conservatives into a political force has been "extraordinary," says D'Souza. "He's taken an organization that essentially had no Washington roots and turned it into a powerhouse rivaling, if not surpassing, the Christian Coalition." Indeed, the growth of the Family Research Council over the last decade is a greater testament to Bauer's networking skill than any of the odd alliances he made during his China crusade. Since 1988 when Bauer took over as director, FRC has gone from a $200,000 organization with 3,000 constituents to a $14 million institution with a constituency of more than 450,000. "Gary is one of the best networkers in Washington," says House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who, despite their occasional economic differences, has worked with Bauer on a number of issues.Much of Gary's success, friends say, stems from his heartfelt belief in his work. "He is a man of principle," says Wade Horn, head of the National Fatherhood Initiative. Other observers credit more pedestrian factors: Bauer's assembling a crack staff of policy analysts, his ability to target issues to generate buzz (China, the per-child tax credit, partial-birth abortion), FRC's effective use of direct mail, the meticulousness of its policy papers -- and a healthy dose of old-fashioned hard work. D'Souza points to the Promise Keepers' October gathering in Washington as an illustration of Bauer's tireless networking. "When the Promise Keepers came to town Gary saw it as a great opportunity. FRC people were out there handing out flyers. They were everywhere. Gary got tons of letters and requests after that -- and lots of new names for his computer database."But all the networking in the world wouldn't have put Bauer in the realm of "Most Formidable Conservative" without the convergence of three key events: his campaign against the U.S.' trade policy with China; Ralph Reed's departure from the Christian Coalition; and Bauer's successful foray into the realm of campaign fund-raising.Launched in the months leading up to Congress' vote on China's MFN status, Bauer's relentless, bipartisan campaign against renewal gained him major media play as something other than a family-values firebrand. In addition to sounding off in forums ranging from The New York Times to the National Press Club, Bauer proved himself a tough debater on PBS' "Firing Line" last October, more than holding his own against opponents such as William F. Buckley and Henry Kissinger. Playing to the crowd, Bauer drew applause with his response to assertions by Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale that the key to opening up China is the exchange of cultural ideas through trade: "It wasn't ÔDallas' that brought the Soviet Union down," said Bauer. "It was Ronald Reagan being willing to speak the truth to evil." Bauer even managed to inject some humor into the debate. Asked his prediction on the political effects of China's reclamation of Hong Kong, he noted, "I expect that Democratic fundraising will be a lot easier now."Folks in Washington were intrigued by Bauer's role in the China battle. As the Heritage foundation's Robert Rector puts it, "This is your classic Amnesty International type of issue." It is also right in line with Bauer's belief that America's "core values," such as its commitment to human and religious rights, should not be subordinated to economics. In fact, Bauer has taken similar stands against a number of the GOP's more libertarian economic positions. In the economic-populist tradition of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, Bauer maintains that "country club Republicans" harm the average American by failing to recognize the importance of "human capital." For instance, Bauer opposes Social Security privatization because it would discriminate against stay-at-home moms. (Under the current system, a widow who has never worked outside the home is nonetheless entitled to 100 percent of her husband's benefits. Most privatization plans include no such provision.) In this sense, says Adam Meyerson, editor of Heritage's Policy Review magazine, "Bauer probably speaks for the Reagan Democrats more than any other political leader in the country."Though Bauer's unorthodox lobbying tactics on China contributed to his heightened profile, equal weight must be given to the departure of Wunderkind Ralph Reed from the Christian Coalition. ("The fact that Ralph isn't out there grabbing the headlines every five minutes is part of [Gary's rise]," says Collen Paro, head of the Republican National Coalition for Life.) The mainstream media has only so much room for social conservatives, and Reed, with his telegenic looks and style, was long the movement's media darling. Comforted and dazzled by an apparent Christian ideologue who sounded and functioned soothingly like a political operative, GOP politicians also embraced Reed as the perfect messenger for the movement -- one who would help keep the ideologues from getting out of hand. When Reed stepped down as director of the Coalition last July, he opened the field for other spokesmen to emerge.Enter Gary Bauer. With a reputation as less compromising and more dogmatic than Reed, Bauer was initially viewed as a mixed blessing for a party concerned about its extremist image. But in his increasingly frequent media appearances, Bauer has bucked the conventional wisdom about him, displaying a remarkable talent for delivering conservative messages without alienating liberal viewers. In a February appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press," Bauer radiated common sense and graciousness even as he gigged the president about the Lewinsky scandal: "When Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child, she touched on an interesting point," Bauer told a sour looking Bob Novak. "It does. It takes parents, teachers, counselors, pastors, and it takes moral leadership at the top, including the president of the United States."Bauer's media savvy recently made a convert of GOP pollster Frank Luntz. Despite initial misgivings about Bauer, says Luntz, he was blown away by viewer tests conducted in February in which, out of a dozen or so commentators discussing the Clinton-Lewinsky hubbub on the political chat shows, Bauer overwhelmingly received the most favorable response from Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. "Gary has figured out that it works to be nice," says Tony Snow, the host of "Fox News Sunday." "His interview style these days is to be simple, plain-spoken -- not angry or confrontational. In other words, he has learned from Clinton." Most Americans feel that nobody in Washington cares, explains Snow, but Clinton and Bauer answer that, "talking in concrete and vivid terms, and connecting with people's actual experiences." This, says Snow, makes Bauer "unlike 99 percent of other Republicans, who get up there and show bar charts about the balanced budget."Not surprisingly, Bauer credits his ability to charm even "hostile" audiences to lessons taken from The Great Communicator himself: "I think it's important that we talk about these difficult issues in a Reaganesque way -- not an angry way, but in a way that appeals to people's hearts." Sharply differentiating himself from other prominent social conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly, "Gary is more oriented toward carrots than sticks," says Michael Schwartz, executive director of the congressional family caucus. His media appearances are peppered with talk of hope, love, patriotism, and his visions for America's future. At the Jan. 13 Conservative Political Action Conference, Bauer discussed the upcoming presidential race in decidedly Reanganesque terms. Encouraging the audience not to focus on polls or politics or even whether the next occupant of the Oval Office is a Democrat or a Republican, he opined: "With the right leadership, our best days can still be ahead. And I want to work with you so that in the year 2000 we will elect a president that will enable us to turn to our children and without hesitancy say, ÔSon, America is still a shining city upon a hill.'"In many ways, Bauer's ascendancy has paralleled the emerging identity crises of the Republican party and of its leading social-conservative ally, the Christian Coalition. In 1996, Bob Dole was patently uncomfortable with the right wing of the party, and virtually indistinguishable from centrist-Democrat Clinton. At the same time, Republican leaders, fretting over the extremist image the 1994 congressional freshmen had given the party, launched a fevered campaign to convince voters that the GOP is an all-encompassing tent under which everyone from pro-life crusader Phyllis Schlafly to pro-choice Gov. Christie Whitman can peacefully coexist. This only succeeded in further alienating social conservatives, wounding both the Republican party and the Christian Coalition. Grumbling that Republicans had forsaken their social agenda and that Reed had essentially turned the Coalition into an adjunct of the Republican National Committee, social conservatives began looking around for a more faithful messenger.Out of this discontent rose Bauer's pro-family political action committee, the Campaign for Working Families. And whereas the Washington political establishment may have taken a while to notice Bauer's fund-raising acumen at the nonprofit FRC, it was considerably quicker to note his skill at garnering political contributions. (To put things in perspective, compare the $2.6 million CWF took in last year with the mere $235,000 Sen. John Ashcroft's PAC raised.) But CWF really grabbed Congress' attention in February when, in a GOP congressional primary in California, it sank $100,000 of those contributions into the campaign of pro-life conservative Tom Bordanaro, the underdog in a race against the more moderate Brooks Firestone, House Speaker Newt Gingrich's candidate of choice. Gingrich's guy lost, and Bauer spun the event as a victory for the social-conservative agenda. "We're sending a clear message here that the part of the party that I'm affiliated with is not going to tolerate any more being played for suckers," he says.A Political Animal?Which brings us to the question of where Gary Bauer plans to go from here. Though he says he has yet to make a final decision about a run for the White House, Bauer is exhibiting symptoms of the presidential itch. (There are rumors he's even started approaching folks about forming a campaign team.) Pitching CWF's success as a popular mandate for a true social-conservative candidacy, Bauer occasionally talks as if he were already in the race: "CWF shows an ability to raise political funds," explained Bauer in a recent interview at FRC's posh new Washington headquarters. "All of the other major candidates have set up PACs for exactly that reason and we've outraised them all, from Dan Quayle to John Ashcroft. I think the fact that people have responded is a sign that there's a real marketplace out there for a little bit more firm and aggressive approach on these issues."Bauer acknowledges that he would be "the longest of long shots." Still, he is confident that his years of work for the pro-family cause would translate into a solid showing at the polls. Even the recent survey of Christian Coalition leaders that named Senator Ashcroft as their candidate of choice doesn't phase Bauer. "All indications are that Pat Robertson personally leans toward John Ashcroft. The Christian Coalition people themselves, however, are the same people who listen to Focus on the Family and are on my mailing list. And if I went for this, I'm confident that I would get a major portion of those individuals' support."Bauer also stands as a prime candidate to get the coveted backing of Focus on the Family's James Dobson. This possibility became all the more real in February, when in a speech to the conservative Council for National Policy, Dobson suggested that maybe the time has come for him to withdraw his support from the GOP -- taking with him as many of his 5 million radio listeners as possible. Dobson (and Bauer) subsequently mailed out thousands of copies of this speech, and news of Dobson's threat showed up in both The Washington Post and The New York Times.The possibility that Dobson would use his considerable stature in the conservative community to steer voters away from the GOP's establishment candidates -- and perhaps toward Bauer -- is something Bauer himself has clearly given some thought. Realizing Dobson's support would be essential to a presidential run, Bauer both emphasizes and jealously guards their close relationship. "I talk to Jim almost every day. He certainly cannot endorse candidates through Focus on the Family, but he has individually endorsed candidates in the past. We're working very closely together and he's been very encouraging without doing a formal endorsement." Bauer and Dobson recently conducted a joint direct-mail campaign for an upcoming Republican primary in Illinois. And in late February, when it was misreported that Dobson had sent John Ashcroft a note privately endorsing the senator's presidential candidacy, Bauer promptly trooped down to Ashcroft's office to clarify the misunderstanding.One thing is clear: No one around Washington seems particularly enthused about the prospect of Bauer running. At this stage, those with little interest in the "pro-family" agenda don't want Bauer spotlighting issues such as abortion and getting the social conservatives riled up. Meanwhile, many who do support such an agenda fear Bauer doesn't have a prayer of winning the nomination and will only harm the cause by siphoning votes from a more "viable" candidate such as Ashcroft or Steve Forbes -- effectively handing the nomination once again to a social moderate.Even those close to Bauer admit that much of what has made him successful at FRC also disqualifies him for the presidency: "He doesn't trim his sails"; "He is uncompromising"; "He's an ideologue." Then, of course, there's the Truman Capote thing. Fair or not, a diminutive, somewhat anemic looking guy is not the stuff of which modern American presidents are made. Intellect and character are all well and good, but we like our politicians with an engaging smile, loads of charisma, and a bit of a John Wayne swagger. "Gary doesn't have the kind of star quality that is important in a president," says Dinesh D'Souza. "He won't turn a head when he walks into a room. He's unobtrusive."Understandably, Bauer's potential competitors are perhaps the most antsy. In its December cover story, The Weekly Standard reported that both Dan Quayle and Bay Buchanan (Pat's sister and erstwhile campaign coordinator) have asked Bauer to leave the social-conservative vote to the professionals. Bauer says he's well aware of all the grumbling about his splitting the vote but notes: "These things aren't anointed. Nobody has the right to keep everybody else out. We should just let people hear our approach on things and let them make the judgments." For his part, Bauer says he would happily endorse a candidate who seemed willing to make pro-family values a mainstay of his or her campaign. But so far, says Bauer, he remains "very disappointed" with what he's seen.Even if Bauer doesn't make it very far out of the starting gate, his cause still stands to gain from his candidacy, either by his gathering enough support to be a power player at the next Republican convention or by his simply forcing social issues onto other candidates' radar screens. A run would also win Bauer greater public recognition, alerting like-minded conservatives nationwide to his cause -- and doubtless translating into still bigger fund-raising numbers in the future. Not bad for a nerdy little ideologue.