Cover Story

Focus on a family feud

Republican regulars face their biggest political crisis of the '90s in the wake of James Dobson's bombshell announcement that he's ready to leave the GOP and take voters, workers, and contributors with him. Surely Gary Bauer , his most trusted ally and political adviser, will play some role. This makes Mr. Bauer's possible presidental run all the more intriguing. And serious.

Issue: "Focus on a family feud," Feb. 27, 1998

In the fevered dreams of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a "vast right-wing conspiracy" is out to get her husband. The conspirators are nameless, faceless ideologues united in their hatred of the president and working around the clock to bring about his downfall. If Mrs. Clinton were to stop eating spicy foods before bedtime, her nightmares would probably look more like the Council for National Policy, a group that is self-consciously shadowy but not particularly sinister. CNP meets four times a year at posh resorts around the country, allowing socially conservative grass-roots organizers to hobnob with the rich-but-not-particularly-famous business people who finance the movement. The typical three-day event includes lots of sparsely attended workshop sessions, capped by a dinner at which the women vie for the unofficial honor of most fabulous evening gown while nibbling on rubbery hotel chicken. Paranoid liberals have long identified CNP as a sort of religious Illuminati, running the universe during secret meetings at which no press is allowed. If ever there were a vast right-wing conspiracy, this would be it. But the Council for National Policy, while decidedly right-wing, is not particularly conspiratorial: The "action items" enumerated at the end of each workshop session are nothing more top-secret than "write your congressman" or "write a letter to the editor." And vast? CNP meetings never number more than a few hundred attendees, including a good many twentysomethings with more energy than influence. So those making the pilgrimage to the CNP meeting in Phoenix earlier this month couldn't have known they were about to witness the shot heard 'round the political world. In one of those daytime workshop sessions, while many members were out shopping or working on their winter tans, James Dobson declared war on the Republican Party. "What good is it to have power if you don't use it for good?" thundered the man whose Focus on the Family radio show attracts 5 million listeners daily. He went on to enumerate all the ways in which majority Republicans had failed to use their power for good: allowing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts; failing to pass school choice or school prayer legislation; increasing condom distribution; retreating from the battle against pornography; and confirming Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "the most liberal justice in the history of the United States," to the Supreme Court by a vote of 96-3. "I think you see where I'm going," he told the crowd. But few in the room would have guessed. Mr. Dobson saved his heaviest fire for the abortion issue. He excoriated Jesse Helms and other conservatives for "caving in" and giving $900 million to Planned Parenthood to export abortion to Catholic and Muslim nations. He blasted a long list of Republicans for running to New Jersey to save the faltering campaign of Christine Todd Whitman, the pro-abortion governor. Then, after a gory description of the partial-birth abortion procedure, he delivered his bombshell: "There is no tent big enough for me and people who will do that." Lest anyone miss the impact of what he was saying, Mr. Dobson clarified: "Does the Republican Party want our votes, no strings attached, to court us every two years and then to say, 'Don't call me, I'll call you'? ... Is that the way the system works? And if so, is it going to stay that way? Is this the way it's going to be? If it is, I'm gone. And if I go, ... I will do everything I can to take as many people with me as possible." The crowd, which had already interrupted the nearly hour-long speech with several bursts of applause, surged to its feet, whistling and whooping. A week later, on the other side of the continent, Gary Bauer tried to get through a luncheon interview without some whistling and whooping of his own. As president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, he has seen his influence rise exponentially over the past 18 months. With the departure of Ralph Reed from the Christian Coalition, Mr. Bauer has become the go-to guy for journalists and mainstream Republicans wanting to know how Christians feel about a political issue. Maybe that's because under his leadership since 1988 FRC's membership has increased more than 100-fold, to 455,000. Maybe it's because FRC's budget has swelled to $14 million, or because FRC maintains extremely close ties with its former parent, the mammoth Focus on the Family ministry. Maybe. But a more likely reason for Mr. Bauer's increased visibility is the fact that he's working so hard for it. As if he didn't already have enough to do, Mr. Bauer recently started dabbling in foreign affairs, boning up on the issue of China's Most Favored Nation trading status until he was enough of an expert to join Henry Kissinger and William F. Buckley on a PBS debate. He also jumped into economic policy last year, opining in The New York Times that privatizing the Social Security system would make it harder for mothers to stay home with their children. The privatization proposal died almost immediately. Why would the man just emerging as the spokesman of social conservatism address issues so far afield of faith and morality? Because you can't be an expert in just one area if you hope to be a serious presidential candidate. And Mr. Bauer does want to be one, though he looks away sheepishly when he says so, as if admitting to some dirty little secret. Those ambitions are no secret in Washington. In January of last year, Mr. Bauer founded the Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee that has grown to be one of the country's biggest. "It's been explosive," Mr. Bauer says. "We brought in $2.6 million in about 12 months, which is more than Dan Quayle or Newt Gingrich or any of the major figures have brought in. The political action committee caused some heads in Washington to turn." The success of Campaign for Working Families is all the more amazing because it raised its millions of dollars without the help of big-business donors, a traditional mainstay of conservative fundraising. Mr. Bauer's opposition to MFN status for China made him a pariah among many Wall Street Republicans, a role he accepts with a certain amount of pride. He tells of a meeting with members of the editorial page staff of The Wall Street Journal in which he chided them for sounding "too cavalier about the real dislocations that real people go through" in corporate downsizing. "These people are the salt of the earth," he insisted. "Couldn't we at least find a little heart in the way we talk about these things?" In response, Mr. Bauer recalls with a laugh, "The people at that table, sitting there in Manhattan, looked at me like I'd just flown in from Neptune. No one had the faintest idea what I was trying to get at." "I don't know why Gary wants to pick a fight with The Wall Street Journal," responds Paul Gigot, the Journal's influential "Potomac Watch" columnist. "I agree with a lot of things he believes in, but when it comes to Social Security reform, for example, he seems to be more or less a status quo guy, which puts him somewhere to the left of Bill Clinton." Populist ideas are fine, he says, but only up to a point: "There's no question that Republicans, to be successful, need to appeal to the middle class. But stupid economic proposals or grab-bag tax cuts don't make a lot of sense" even if they attract a few votes. But Mr. Bauer's appeal to Main Street is not merely political; it's his own blue-collar background, which left him with an abiding distaste for elites of all kinds: "I guess I am something of a populist." He vividly recalls the night his tough, ex-Marine father cried at the kitchen table because he'd lost his job and didn't know if he would find another. Partial scholarships and plenty of night jobs got a young Gary Bauer through college in Kentucky and Georgetown Law School, where he was surrounded by students from a different socioeconomic world. Still, he has never forgotten his roots. He favors lower taxes and less regulation-the mantra of economic conservatives everywhere. But he resents country-club Republicans for the virtual gag order they have imposed on serious consideration of social reforms within the GOP. "The evidence is overwhelming now that the corporate elite of America is no more sensitive to our worldview than the cultural elite or the Hollywood elite is. You see the big corporations subsidizing Planned Parenthood while crisis pregnancy centers go begging. Those same large corporate interests are constantly putting pressure on the Republican Party leadership to downplay or abandon or soft-peddle our agenda because it offends them or their wives-or their mistresses." And that, says Mr. Bauer, is his sole reason for considering a presidential bid. In looking over the field of potential candidates, he doesn't see anyone willing to make family issues the driving force of a campaign. Given the current debate over morality among elected officials, he believes the time for such a campaign is now. "We've had some real good economic years, but Americans know instinctively that there's more to life than how much money you've got in the bank," he says. "What's missing is somebody willing without shame or embarrassment to give voice to these things and to lead a national debate over what is the proper relationship between liberty and virtue." Mr. Bauer is disappointed by prominent conservatives who sidestep that debate, like Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio), who was asked four times in an interview, "If the president had consensual sex with a 21-year-old intern, did he do something morally reprehensible enough that he should leave the presidency?" "He did not answer the question!" Mr. Bauer marvels, leaning forward and spreading his hands in mock disbelief. "This is not a hard question for me to answer. It should not be a hard question for the American people to answer. But bereft of leadership, they will wander in the wilderness." Such moral self-assurance may not automatically appeal to America's soccer moms, a key voting bloc that wants safe neighborhoods and a safe retirement, but also favors safe-sex instruction at their children's public schools. Mr. Bauer, a member of the conservative evangelical Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Va., recognizes that Democrats might portray him as a born-again bogeyman in an effort to scare such moderate voters away from the GOP. But he insists that in 15 years of facing hostile crowds, he has never finished a speaking engagement without "a great deal of goodwill left behind." Soft-spoken, short of stature, and given to self-deprecating humor, Mr. Bauer does not come across as particularly threatening. His antagonism toward groups like the gay-rights lobby is balanced by an apparently genuine concern for working Americans and by frequent calls for racial reconciliation. Such emphases make him something of a wildcard in the presidential primary shuffle. He recognizes that some economic conservatives-particularly libertarians-would find it impossible to vote for him. For all the recent attention Gary Bauer has received, nothing could send his political stock soaring more than the Dobson speech at CNP. Mr. Dobson specifically faulted every well-known GOP presidential wannabe-including Ashcroft, Forbes, Gingrich, Kemp, Quayle, Elizabeth Dole, and George W. Bush-for failing to speak out often enough or loudly enough on family issues. He promised to take his criticisms to the Southern Baptist Convention in June and the Christian Coalition in September. And then, he added, in a sentence that could change the face of Republican politics, "I may take a leave of absence from Focus on the Family to say it." Freed from the restraints of a tax-exempt organization, Mr. Dobson would have the liberty to wield his formidable clout in the political arena. Perhaps only Billy Graham has a greater reservoir of trust and goodwill among evangelicals, so a Dobson endorsement would immediately vault a candidate into the top tier of contenders. Mr. Bauer allows himself a tight smile at the suggestion. "I don't know what he will do down the road, but he has been very encouraging to me about the fact that I'm thinking about this," Mr. Bauer says, emphasizing that the Focus organization would never endorse anyone, though Mr. Dobson as an individual very well might. "My prayer is that down the road he'll want to do something overt that will be a signal to people." Mr. Dobson refused to shut the door on such a possibility. "That's a decision that has to be made later," he told WORLD. "I have great love and respect for Gary, and he is my great friend. We'll just have to see how the political scene unfolds between now and the year 2000." In the meantime, he said, he is watching for substantive changes from the GOP: "All that conservative Christians want Republicans to do is to keep their promise to defend the principles that they shouted from the rooftops when they asked for our votes." If that change is not forthcoming, Messrs. Dobson and Bauer appear ready to encourage a bold show of strength by social conservatives. Both men recognize that such a step would be fraught with danger. Unless other social conservatives bowed out of the race, a Bauer candidacy would likely split the pro-family vote at least three ways. If a moderate, establishment candidate benefited from that split and took the nomination, Mr. Dobson's prediction of a party split could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He has vowed very publicly, after all, to walk away from the GOP if it continues to ignore his concerns, and a moderate nominee in 2000 would signal that the party had chosen that very path. Although Mr. Bauer stresses that he has not yet made up his mind on a presidential bid, Mr. Dobson seems to have determined already that social conservatives are reaching a crossroads. If push came to shove, would he really turn his back on the GOP? Those who doubt his resolve should remember that he literally wrote the book on the subject. It's called Tough Love. Republicans might want to read it.

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