Gary Bauer's Moral Dilemma

Fed up with the GOP, the religious right leader makes overtures to Democrats. To whom will he be faithful?

On April 13, Gary Bauer spoke at Harvard University's Institute of Politics. It was doubly ironic for Bauer, a leader of the Christian right and son of a Kentucky maintenance man, to have an audience at the bastion of liberal elitism. Bauer delivered a spine-tingling sermon against President Clinton's see-no-evil trade policy with China. After summarizing China's record of exploiting slave labor and persecuting religious minorities, Bauer concluded, "We are acting as if money is the highest American value. And I think it's a scandal."

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A student in the back of the room challenged Bauer to extend his critique of capitalism to domestic issues. He noted that Bauer had criticized advocates of Social Security privatization for undermining the nation's commitment to dependent spouses and children. Was there a "potential for realignment," the student asked, "between social conservatives and a more progressive strand of economic thinking?" Bauer smiled. "A lot of realignments are possible," he replied.

Bauer is scaring the hell out of the Republican establishment. For years, Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, has been warning that his followers would abandon the party if it didn't pay them more heed. Lately, he's been threatening to run for president. Conservatives worry that he will monopolize the religious right, thereby handing the Republican nomination to a more credible moderate. GOP leaders worry that he will force the party to the fundamentalist fringe, thereby handing the election to the Democrats.

But both groups are overlooking a third, more interesting threat: Bauer is leading his flock toward a moralist economic philosophy that often seems more Democratic than Republican. Though he is probably just flirting with the left to make his Republican partners jealous and attentive, Bauer's economic heresies are opening a new fault line in the GOP. And they raise the possibility that Democrats could work with cultural conservatives to impose moral restraints on capitalism.

Last year, when Ralph Reed stepped down as executive director of the Christian Coalition, Bauer emerged as the new star of the religious right. Some pundits scoffed that with his middle-aged, dwarfish look (he's just over 5 feet tall), Bauer would never attain Reed's telegenic charm. Others predicted that Bauer would give the GOP fits by refusing to compromise, as Reed had, on moral issues. But other differences have turned out to be more important.

Reed viewed the religious right as an interest group concerned with a few issues such as abortion and school prayer. Bauer wants to broaden the agenda. "The business wing of the party wants social conservatives to vote Republican, but doesn't like the idea that social conservatives might have ideas about foreign policy or tax policy," says Bill Kristol, the publisher of the Weekly Standard and a friend of Bauer's. "Ralph was willing to abide by that bargain. Gary isn't." Bauer's economic adviser, Jeff Bell, agrees. "Gary is testing the hypothesis that the pro-family movement is ready to break out. It's ready to have an economics and a foreign policy of its own."

That economic and foreign policy is class-conscious and populist, thanks in part to Bauer's background. He grew up among Democrats in the blue-collar town of Newport, Kentucky, and was the only member of his extended family to attend college. He speaks of the night his father, an unskilled laborer, cried over the kitchen table after losing his job.

Bauer's economic ideas flow from three principles: virtue, family, and human capital. The human capital theory, advanced decades ago by economist Theodore Schultz, was brought to Bauer's attention by a circle of pro-family supply-siders led by Bell. Schultz held that investments in people are more productive than investments in buildings or machines. From this, the pro-family supply-siders conclude that tax breaks should go to families rather than corporations.

In 1995, when Bell and his colleagues presented their ideas to a Republican tax-reform commission, they found themselves outgunned by "corporatists" who preferred tax breaks for businesses. So they turned to the Democrats. They tried to organize a presidential campaign for Bob Casey, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, based on cultural conservatism and pro-family economics. Bauer wanted to lend his support but was thwarted when health problems forced Casey to back out.

Instead, Bauer and the pro-family supply-siders formed a PAC. They called it the Campaign for Working Families. "I was trying to send a signal that this wouldn't be a PAC concerned about capital gains tax cuts as opposed to decent wages," says Bauer. Bell puts it less delicately: "It was meant to be in-your-face to Republican sensibilities."

In January 1997, Bauer opened fire on the corporatists. In a New York Times op-ed, he argued that schemes to privatize Social Security would strip stay-at-home mothers of federally guaranteed benefits designed to reward them for raising children. "Why do we think the nation will be better off," Bauer asked, "by forcing workers to put their money into stock rather than, say, spending it on rearing children?"

Bauer believes that government programs should treat families as a unit. "The building blocks of our society are little platoons—families or small organizations," he says. "When you help the children or the survivor in a family because the breadwinner has passed away, that's a logical and moral thing to do." Likewise, on welfare reform, Bauer ridicules "the idea that children will be better off if they're herded into for-profit or government-run childcare so that their single mothers can flip hamburgers." Through this line of reasoning, "conservative" anti-individualism merges with "liberal" compassion.

Bauer spent most of 1997 fighting the Republican elite over China. House GOP leaders argued that free trade would improve the Chinese government's behavior, based on the libertarian axiom that capitalism entails or cultivates moral virtues. Bauer takes a less sanguine and more conservative view: "The free market works only when it's restrained by virtue." Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) found Bauer particularly nettlesome. "We had a number of meetings that were frank and argumentative," Bauer recalls. "I thought we were spending too much time listening to particular economic interests."

The China debate drew Bauer into an open alliance with liberals. He coordinated strategy with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), attended a Kennedy family dinner, staged a press conference with the AFL-CIO, and dined with Richard Gere after they shared the same stage at a rally. On "Firing Line," Bauer teamed up with former California Gov. Jerry Brown to debate GOP luminaries who opposed trade sanctions. "[Brown] was quite eloquent about the religious persecution issue," says Bauer. "I'm looking across the table at Henry Kissinger, Trent Lott, and William F. Buckley Jr., and thinking, 'What's wrong with this picture?'"

Laissez-faire Republicans accused Bauer of extending narrow-minded moral litmus tests to foreign policy. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) charged that Bauer and Pat Buchanan tried "to bring in a social agenda on trade." Democrats dote on Shays because he opposes government involvement in moral issues such as abortion. But the China debate illustrates how, on economic issues, this laissez-faire attitude can become the left's enemy. It also shows how those who oppose "bringing in a social agenda on trade" are actually applying a contrary litmus test. "The pro-business wing of the party is, in fact, more narrow-minded than the social- conservative wing," argues Kristol. "They're the ones who want to disallow a whole realm of debate [by insisting on] a foreign policy devoid of moral considerations."

Republicans have often argued that politics can't cure cultural ills. On China, Bauer has shamed them by pointing out that economics can't cure cultural ills, either. He has also shamed Democrats by exposing President Clinton's subordination of human rights to corporate interests. In April, as reports surfaced that Clinton had circumvented trade restrictions with China to help Democratic corporate donors, congressional Democrats kept their mouths shut. It fell to Bauer to criticize Clinton's "molding of large corporations with government."

Conversely, the GOP expects cultural conservatives to shut up about sin industries, such as gambling and tobacco, that help fill the party's coffers. Instead, Bauer and his principal ally, religious right broadcaster James Dobson, have routinely chided the party for cozying up to casino operators. Dobson and Kay James, the former vice president of Bauer's Family Research Council, are leading the fight against casinos from their seats on the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. "I don't see how you can be the party of conservative social values when you're actively courting the money of the gambling industry," says Bauer. "It's particularly irritating to me when Newt goes out to [raise money in] Las Vegas."

The next collision looming between Bauer and the corporatists is on tax reform. Last year, he debated them over whether tax cuts should go to parents or businesses. He also sided with Democrats who wanted to let low-income workers deduct the child tax credit from their Social Security taxes, even if the workers hadn't earned enough to owe income taxes.

This year, Republicans want to replace the tax code with either a business-friendly flat tax or a national sales tax. Bauer's faction rejects both ideas. "It's a phony debate," scoffs Bell. "They both fall heavily on workers and not on corporations."

Bauer says he's itching to attack Steve Forbes and his flat tax in the Republican presidential primaries. "Forbes defines income in a way that would allow businesses to write off in one year all the cost of new plants and investment," says Bauer. "So a lot of large corporations will have virtually a zero tax liability. But under the Forbes plan, we won't be able to write off our investment in our kids." Indeed, Bauer's ideas arguably put him closer to Gephardt, under whose plan low-income families would continue to pay lower rates than the wealthy. When asked whether he prefers Gephardt's plan to Forbes', Bauer bites his tongue. "You're really asking me to set myself on fire," he laughs.

Will Bauer work with progressive Democrats to defend working families against unfettered profit and privatization? The prospects for such an alliance are limited. Bauer shares the GOP's visceral antipathy for regulation and redistribution, and on issues of common ground with the left, he has yet to put his money where his mouth is. The only issue the Campaign for Working Families has emphasized in its campaign ads this year is abortion. And while the questionnaire the CWF sends to the candidates who seek its aid does ask whether they would support child tax credits, anti-gambling measures, and trade restrictions on China, most of it sticks to conventional right-wing moral issues and Republican boilerplate.

More likely, Bauer is flirting with Democrats to scare the GOP into accommodating him on cultural issues. What irritates him most, he told the Harvard audience, "is that subtle message the [Republican] Party periodically gives me that I have no place to go. My Republican friends are miscalculating about that." Mischievous delight plays on Bauer's face as he alludes to the terror that he and Dobson have provoked among the GOP brass by threatening a walkout of the religious right.

Even so, Bauer's common ground with the left presents a challenge. Democrats regard the Republican civil war between libertarians and moralists as an opportunity to join the libertarians and defeat the moralists. Bauer seems a particularly suitable bogeyman: In a congressional race earlier this year, he flooded California's 22nd District with anti-abortion ads, helping the pro-life Republican candidate upset the pro-choice favorite for the GOP nomination. Democrats then wooed pro-choice Republican voters and won the general election.

But perhaps the libertarians are the greater threat. Political scientist Benjamin Barber, who famously defined democracy's polar nemeses as jihad (cultural warfare) and McWorld (global capitalism), worries that the latter may pose the more lasting peril. "Unregulated capitalism destroys all values—those of pluralism, as well as those of family," says Barber. "Where 'right' and 'left' share a concern with the ravages of materialism on values, there is a good rationale for political cooperation."

The other challenge is to Bauer. Will he put his muscle behind issues of economic morality, as he has on abortion? He admits that he has yet to do so. "The base that I have at the Family Research Council is much more passionate about abortion than about the other issues," he says. As for his PAC's failure to run ads on economic issues, he explains that "the mailing lists we rented to raise the money have been pro-life. So I felt constrained about turning around and using the money on other issues."

What grotesque irony: the incorruptible Gary Bauer, trimming his agenda to suit a single-issue constituency. He must now decide whether to follow that constituency or to lead it to new horizons—and whether he wants a serious relationship with Democrats, or just a one-night stand.

William Saletan is a Mother Jones contributing writer.