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The Man Who Would Be Reagan

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In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. Then he made New Hampshire, which resolved never to go second again. Accordingly, to meet the very model of a modern Christian candidate, a good place to go is the "Politics and Eggs" breakfast at the Bedford Village Inn, just south of Manchester. The inn is terminally quaint, with rugs on wooden floors, print wallpaper, wing chairs, wooden beams, herbal teas. The audience, however, is all business, literally: 80 or so men and women hosted by the New England Council and a handful of other regional business groups.

As the executives assemble, Gary Bauer enters the room. He does not dominate it. He is short–shorter than his 12-year-old son–and homely, with a boyish tenor voice and cool blue eyes. He is diffident rather than forceful, waiting for people to approach him rather than working the room. Both one-to-one and at the podium, he is crisply engaged, with quick, articulate opinions on everything from the Kyoto global-warming protocols to tort reform. He lacks both grandeur and bluster, which makes his presidential candidacy seem both refreshing and implausible.

The crowd today is pretty good, and so it should be. Bauer, after all, is a serious contender for the nomination–not the Republican nomination, but the conservative nomination. "There are two primaries," says Frank Cannon, his campaign manager. "There's a conservative primary and a moderate primary, and the conservative primary is now down to Gary and [Steve] Forbes." If Bauer wins the conservative primary, he need not actually win the White House to be Patrick J. Buchanan's and Newt Gingrich's successor as the de facto leader of the conservative minority in national politics.

Bauer assures his audiences that he is staying in the race through the primaries "and beyond." Barring the unexpected, it is a credible promise. As of mid-October, he had raised more money than any rival but Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain. His cash amounted to less than a sixth of Bush's, but his donor base of 109,000 was, astonishingly, 80 percent as large. Hardly any of those Bauer enthusiasts were close to being tapped out. With their help and federal matching funds, Bauer hopes to command $20 million between now and the early primaries, enough to challenge Forbes for the conservative vote in every contested state.

Until he entered the presidential race in April, Bauer was the president of the Family Research Council, the leading think-tank of Christian conservatism. Many of his campaign staff, notes Bob Jones in the Christian magazine World, are "armed with impeccable evangelical credentials." Follow Bauer from dawn to dusk of a long day's campaigning, however, and there is one word you never hear: "Christian."

You do hear another word: "Reagan." You hear it all day long. Reagan, Reagan, Reagan. Bauer begins his answers to all sorts of questions, "I worked for Ronald Reagan for eight years, and…" (He worked in Reagan's Education Department and then was his domestic policy adviser.) Asked where he stands, he invariably replies: "I'm a Reagan conservative." On missile defense, on polls, on taxes, he cites Reagan, quotes Reagan, tells Reagan stories.

And so, in Bedford, Bauer takes a page from Reagan's book. As the speech begins, Bauer's staff hands out the text: "Gary Bauer's Plan for a Family-Friendly Flat Tax and Social Security Reform." Bauer calls for a flat income tax and a radical tax simplification that would shift the burden away from individuals and toward corporations. Not coincidentally, Reagan's 1986 tax reform flattened tax rates, simplified the tax code, and shifted the burden away from individuals and toward corporations.

The Bauer plan for Social Security would reduce payroll taxes and future benefits but otherwise leaves the program alone. "I think Social Security has been a good program," he tells the breakfasters. "Some of my libertarian friends in Washington think Social Security was the worst program ever conceived. I disagree." His proposal puts him to the left of his party, which increasingly favors a partial privatization of Social Security–but it also puts him not far from Ronald Reagan, a former New Deal Democrat who was happy to leave Social Security alone.

So it goes, at one campaign stop after another. In Nashua, he calls for a defense buildup, a la Reagan. Defense, he says, "has declined to a dangerously low level." He favors Reagan's vision of a missile-defense system, since America can't defend its citizens from a rogue nuclear attack. "Reagan was a profoundly moral man," Bauer says, "and this struck him as a profoundly immoral fact." Test-ban treaty? No way. Reagan said "trust but verify," Bauer tells the group, "and I'm a Reagan man." He favors smaller government but declines to specify any of the government's six zillion programs that he would actually eliminate. "There are a lot of places where just on the basis of waste and fraud and fat a lot could be done," he remarks. Say, Reagan buffs, doesn't that just take you down memory lane?

In other words, if you loved Reagan, you'll love Bauer. Well, at least you'll like Bauer. No one else in the race, Bauer reminds his audiences, so completely embodies the Reagan agenda.

But listen more closely. The music is not altogether in sync with the words. In Bedford, Bauer begins his tax speech by talking about taxes–for about five minutes. He crisply explains the plan, emphasizing that it is good for Main Street whereas Forbes's competing flat tax caters to Wall Street. Then he does a few minutes on Social Security. And then he changes the subject. "Unless America deals with our virtue deficits," he tells this business audience, "the economy growing and all of our bank accounts aren't going to make very much difference."

He speaks now, with passion, of moral rot: of the black man dragged to his death by racists in Texas; of the two 10-year-olds who threw a 7-year-old out a window for refusing to shoplift for them; of Cassie Bernall, the junior at Columbine High School who–according to a popularly accepted story that police say is almost certainly apocryphal–was shot to death after affirming to her killer that she believed in God. "Over the last 30 years," he says, "a lot of the things we've done in America make it harder to create people like Cassie Bernall."

Values, not taxes, are where Bauer's heart is. "Liberty has to be tempered by virtue," he tells a reporter on the front steps of Madden's Family Restaurant in Merrimack. "That's going to be the greatest challenge of the next century." In Nashua, he tells the defense workers, "I think what's changed is that the tapestry of American culture has had these threads pulled out of it." In a statement criticizing Bush's recent attack on conservatives' gloomy denunciations of moral decline, he speaks of the "deepening crisis in our culture."

At bottom, Bauer is campaigning against what Francis Fukuyama, of George Mason University, has called the Great Disruption, a period of familial and social breakdown that began in the 1960s, not just in America but throughout the developed world. Where Fukuyama blames mainly economics (the flood of women into the workforce) and technology (such as birth control), Bauer tends to blame a corrupt popular culture and liberal judges. President Bauer, he makes clear, will use the bully pulpit and his judicial nominations to change the culture and the law.

Bauer says that, although he would not scour his nominees' private lives, an open atheist or open homosexual would not be welcome in his Administration. To imagine Reagan saying this is not easy. Reagan was no church-goer, and he was famously relaxed about homosexuality; in California, in 1978, he was instrumental in defeating a major anti-gay ballot initiative backed by evangelicals.

Reagan, like Bauer, talked of older, better values; but for Reagan, it was liberals and the political establishment, not Americans or their culture, who had lost touch with Main Street morality. The words "deepening crisis in our culture" would not have come easy to Reagan. In his America, it was always morning.

For libertarians and economic conservatives, Reagan cut taxes; for anti-communists and neoconservatives, he challenged the Soviets and won; for patriots and blue collars, he made America confident. For social conservatives and evangelicals, however, he did more or less nothing. And so Bauer is trying to reassemble the Reagan coalition, this time to do the job that Reagan brushed aside.

In seeking to rally Reagan's forces to the cause of remoralization, Bauer seeks not so much to reprise Reaganism as to reinvent it. Is Bauer a Reagan man? No doubt. But Reagan was not a Bauer man.