Gary Bauer is a leading conservative voice in the United States, championing pro-life, pro-family policies. Bauer served in the Reagan Administration for eight years as Chief Domestic Policy Advisor and Undersecretary for Education.
Bauer ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2000, and helped push conservative issues to the forefront in candidate debates and on the campaign trail. He attracted close to 10% support in early contests before withdrawing and endorsing John McCain over eventual nominee George W. Bush.
He is now President of the conservative American Values organisation. This interview with Gary Bauer was conducted in late May 2010.
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John Barron: First Mr Bauer can we talk about your time in the Reagan Administration... what insights did you gain into the role of the Presidency and what a president can do?
Gary Bauer: Well certainly... those were exciting years for a conservative like myself and it was very obvious to me that if you have a president, particularly one that connects with the American people that that president can do a great deal. Obviously a president has a tremendous ability to guide American foreign policy, and Ronald Reagan did that by confronting the Soviet Union and many of us would argue played the lead role in bringing the Soviet Union eventually down. But he also on domestic policy was able to do a number of things that changed the direction that the United States was going in; he did a number of very significant tax cuts, bring the marginal tax rate here in the United States down from the mid-to-high 70’s all the way down to the high twenties. He also rebuilt America’s defences, was able to cause a national debate on education reform. So, yes, I did see what a good president can do and Ronald Reagan was adept at using the power of the office.
Barron: To what extent was that about the power of the office, the powers that any president has, as opposed to personal and political attributes that President Reagan possessed?
Bauer: Well President Reagan did have tremendous political attributes and I think that gave him a real advantage over other Presidents who have served in the office. Ronald Reagan had, for example, a natural charm that somebody like a Richard Nixon or a Jimmy Carter did not particularly have. And so the American people were particularly comfortable with him and he came across as an average guy, I think a lot of Americans could imagine having Ronald Reagan around to their home for a cook-out and not think they would feel uncomfortable doing that. He talked about public policy in what his critics would say was simplistic ways, but he would say that he talked about public policy in ways that the American people could understand; so he was a great story-teller because he knew, just as Abraham Lincoln did, that’s a great way to teach the American people on various issues and on the way we want to go. So i do think those skills played a major role in his success.
Barron: Was President Reagan’s legacy a lasting one? You were among a group of conservatives who sought to make the Reagan Revolution more permanent through the Project for a New American Century, are there things that change inevitably from administration to administration – does the country change when you have a less-conservative Republican like George H.W. Bush or a Democrat like Bill Clinton – or are there fundamental things that remain to this day from the Reagan era?
Bauer: I think there were some lasting changes. You know we are all reminded – those of us who are involved with politics – if you lose an election or win an election there’s always another election. And of course things do change and the country moves on and tries other approaches, but II think Reagan did set certain standards and did reignite America’s confidence in itself – after Vietnam we were very hesitant about our role in the world and whether we could legitimately when the circumstances required it use military force in order to protect liberty. Reagan was able to reignite that confidence by the American elite that there were times when we had to use force. And there was something else that I think was relatively lasting, and that was this idea that he spoke of often as America as a “shining city on a hill”. Now I know to some around the world that might sound perhaps overly bold, or maybe even arrogant, but Reagan was referring to the way the founders used the phrase; it’s a biblical phrase and it was used to describe the idea that America had a special role to play as a beacon of liberty to those around the world that you can be free. And I think that has become, up until recently, a pretty much ingrained idea in the American psyche. Now some would argue the current president may not share the same feelings – I’m sure folks in Australia have heard about the controversy about whether President Obama has been apologising for the United States as he’s made foreign trips. So there’s a lot of debate going on around the country comparing President Obama to President Reagan and those of us on the right think that Reagan comes out of that comparison pretty well. Those on the left of course disagree strongly.
Barron: There are those of course as well comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter and wondering if there is another Ronald Reagan waiting in the wings – do you see those comparisons and do you see this is a time for a shift back to the conservative side of politics?
Bauer: I do. You know nothing is certain in politics, and things can change rapidly and often do because of headlines that nobody can predict... and there could be things that happen between now and November’s [midterm] election for the congress... but as of now, all the signs are there for a real reaction in the electorate back to more conservative principles. We see it in the Tea party Movement; there are a number of national polls indicating the Republicans will pick up house and senate seats. There’s disagreement and debate about how many, but it certainly looks like it could be a significant pickup. What is not evident however is, even of that election does go well for Republicans this coming November, I don’t think that there’s any consensus that there’s a Ronald Reagan on the horizon for 2012. There are a number of candidates that have caught the imagination of conservative voters but nobody who seems as formidable as Reagan, and it remains to be seen if that individual, that man or woman will emerge in time for the 2012 Presidential election.
Barron: Let’s go back a decade or more when you first began to consider a Presidential campaign of your own; was this something you had considered, that had been in the back of your mind given the proximity to power having worked in the Reagan administration, was it inspired by a particular event? What was your thought process?
Bauer: Well I was something of a reluctant candidate, which probably never a good thing to be if you are throwing your hat into a presidential nomination. But I had a number of people come to me – fellow conservatives in the Republican Party – many of whom had worked for other candidates over the years like Jack Kemp for example – and they were concerned as I was by what we saw as a drift in the Republican Party away from conservative principles. And they urged me to think seriously to get into the Republican primaries to try to hold the feet to the fire of the other presidential hopefuls. And so I did that and stayed in the race through the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, hoping that I could move the debate in the Republican Party further to the right.
Barron: So from the outset your thinking was that you would have the campaign structure and finances that are required to win the nomination but that it was more about recalibrating the agenda of the other Republican candidates?
Bauer: Yes, my original goal was certainly to do that, to make the other candidates in the Presidential debates respond to the points I was bring up. But I have to tell you that when you go out on the campaign trail doing ten-twelve events a day and stay in these little motels all over Iowa, and really it’s a very difficult process the United States has created that one has to go through as a Presidential candidate. [But] as people began to respond to us, you certainly begin to think, well what if I do better than expected? Could we raise enough money? But unfortunately the election returns disabused me of any notion that I could conclude that I would be a strong candidate in that race.
Barron: And yet there must be those moments when you are doing those twelve events and you are meeting people in a retail politics setting who are saying ‘we believe in what you believe in, we want you to be our President’- that must be compelling.
Bauer: It is, it certainly is and human nature being what it is I think that anyone would respond to that. And in addition to that, my own background was blue collar, working class, no one in my family had ever finished high school let alone go on to graduate from law school, and then go on to work for the President of the United States. So my own life had been one of reaching levels that were not easily predictable. So out on the campaign trail as people responded to that personal story that I had to tell that certainly does encourage you. And then finally, there is a straw poll that is before the causses in Iowa and in that straw poll in Ames, Iowa, in which 15 or 20-thousand Republicans from all over the state participate I was able to beat out a number of candidates that had run a number of times before. So I certainly will confess that there were times, particularly then when I thought that perhaps with a few breaks things could go a lot further than I thought.
In August 1999, Gary Bauer finished a surprisingly strong fourth in the Straw Poll conducted in Ames, Iowa – the first real test of a candidate’s strength in the nominating contest. Gov. George W Bush of Texas finished first, billionaire businessman Steve Forbes second, former Red Cross Chairwoman and wife of Senator Bob Dole, Elizabeth Dole was third, then Gary Bauer. Bauer beat a large field of GOP candidates including Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Senator Orrin Hatch and Senator John McCain. The following January in the Iowa Caucuses, Bauer again came fourth, attracting 9% support.
Barron: Given that in Iowa there is a very strong evangelical support base available to Republican candidates, what impact does it have and what impact is it likely to have in 2012 – will it favour conservatives, will it work against candidates like Mitt Romney who didn’t win in 2008 despite spending $30-million in Iowa?
Bauer: You are absolutely right, Iowa being a caucus first of all tends to favour whatever candidate can rally real grassroots support because with a caucus you don’t just stop by, stand in a line for a few minutes and vote. You go to a meeting and it may last an hour or two, in front of your neighbours and friends you indicate who you are voting for. And in Iowa it’s likely to be a cold winter night when that caucus takes place so anybody with a grassroots organization does better and in Iowa the grassroots organization that has been the most effective has been the one made up of Christian conservatives. I think that gives an advantage to someone like Mike Huckabee [winner in 2008] if he ran again, Sarah Palin if she decided to run – and it makes it harder on candidates like Mitt Romney and perhaps some of the other candidates being mentioned who don’t have quite the popularity among that voter group. But Iowa is the starting line, it’s not the finishing line and so you still have to go on and raise a lot of money to be competitive in a lot of states and so a bad showing in Iowa may eliminate a candidate, but it’s usually not a deal-breaker for front-runners, that is they can usually go on and do well in a state like New Hampshire which is more secularly-oriented and then later in some of these big states that are very rich in delegates that you can take to the convention.
Barron: I was surprised when I was at the Straw Poll in Ames in 2007 at the level and seeming importance the issue of abortion had for many Republicans – it’s not something that is part of the political debate in Australia yet at political rallies in the US you’ll see graphic pictures on posters and banners being held up and it’s something that people feel tremendously passionate about – it’s been an important issue for you as well – can you try to explain to an outsider why this issue is so front-and-centre in American politics?
Bauer: Well I think there are a number of reasons. One of them is the way the issue was originally decide – that is back in 1973 the United States had 50 different state laws on abortions; some of those laws were very liberal and allowed abortion under very broad circumstances, other states were more conservative in their outlook and more values-oriented and would have restrictions on abortion that limited them quite a bit. Then in 1973 the Supreme Court in the Rose vs. Wade decision struck down all 50 state laws and instated essentially an abortion regulation that allows virtually every abortion for any reason in all of the states. And I think that was deeply offensive to millions of Americans that have deep moral objections against what we see as the taking of innocent life. And so that I think has contributed to the issue of abortion remaining a very hard-fought and debated issue in American politics. Interestingly, there are often controversial Supreme Court decisions but as time passes the country will reconcile itself to a Supreme Court Decision, that’s not happened on this; it may be the only case in American history where it hasn’t happened. It’s now 37 years later and in fact the latest Gallup polls in the United States show the public is more pro-life and anti-abortion today than it was in 1973. In fact recent polls show a majority of Americans now describe themselves as “pro-life” and say they are against most of the abortions that takes place. So, I think part of it is because America has a high degree of religiosity - a much higher rates of religion let s say than our friends in Europe let’s say or in countries like Australia. So it is a very emotional and very important issue.
Barron: In what way does it relate to the Presidential campaigns – I suppose two terms of President Reagan, two of George W Bush, one of George H.W. Bush [plus Nixon/Ford] they haven’t been able to change the makeup of the [Supreme] Court to overturn that ruling – so what is the objective in a political sense?
Bauer: Well the objective is to change the court. During the period of time you mentioned where there were Republican Presidents some of the judges that were appointed to the Supreme Court quite frankly ended up disappointing my side. That is, we thought they were judges, by looking at their judicial philosophy, would be likely to not uphold Roe vs. Wade and a couple of them disappointed. But the consensus today is that of the nine justices, there are probably four that would very strongly would like to roll back some of the points and the ramifications of Roe vs. Wade. There may be four solidly on the other side of keeping Roe vs. Wade untouched and one justice who is unpredictable. So I fully expect the “life issue” will in 2012 again play a major role in the Presidential debate and election, and it certainly played a tremendous role in the debate that the United States just went through on healthcare reform. In fact the charge... or the debate over whether the healthcare bill would require taxpayers to pay for abortions almost killed the healthcare bill and required the President to do several things to try to avoid that happening.
Barron: Back at the start of 2000 when you dropped out of the Presidential race you endorsed Senator John McCain over then-Governor George W Bush – why was that?
Bauer: Well there were a couple of reasons. One of them was the issue we just discussed; I want an assurance from each of the candidates that if I endorsed them and they went on and won that their Supreme Court appointees would respect the sanctity of life and would want to move American in a different direction in that area. And interestingly enough, and surprising to some I felt I got that assurance from Senator McCain but could not get it from then-Governor Bush. And based on that and also my concerns about some campaign tactics that I saw being used against Senator McCain in South Carolina ultimately saw me endorse him.
Barron: There was a large number of evangelical Christian voters who came out in 2004 for President Bush who hadn’t voted for him in 2000, and many credit them – about 4-millon – with making the difference in that election against John Kerry. What did he [Bush] do to win over those voters and ultimately was that support repaid?
Bauer: I think that George [W] Bush did get significant Christian votes in his first campaign, but you are absolutely right that when he ran for re-election that the commitment of those voters was even greater and they did turn out in states like Ohio at even higher rates than was previously expected. It’s hard to know what lead to that, to some extent the President’s own personal faith had become more obvious as he served in the White House. 9/11 had taken place and the President had made the moral case about why we needed to confront radical Islam and remove Saddam Hussein from power, and I think a lot of faith-based voters responded to those issues. And a lot were very concerned that Senator Kerry would be up to that battle and would continue those policies. And then the other thing that had happened at that time was that debate had begun to break out over the definition of marriage – we had a number of state court decisions that had authorized same-sex marriage – and that was a shocking development for many Christian conservative voters and they felt that President Bush was on their side on that issue and that the Democratic Party ultimately would not defend the normal definition of marriage. And I think particularly in states like Ohio and Florida that played a major oriole in getting out a much larger Christian voter base.
Barron: With these issues, whether it’s same-sex marriage or whether it’s the issue of abortion, these things can be used in the G.O.T.V. [get out the vote] effort where unlike Australia you have non-compulsory voting – do you ever sense Gary Bauer as a person of faith that people in the political process use these issues just to win votes but their heart isn’t in the right place except for wanting a more conservative candidate elected?
Bauer: Well look, I’ve been in Washington 30 years and being able to discern the heart of a politician is not an easy task! Folks who have devoted their lives to serving and running for office certainly desire to win and we’ve all seen that neither political party in any country, no political party in any country has a monopoly on virtue or vice unfortunately. But I do think that in the west generally and certainly in the United States there is a significant cultural divide on issues that have a strong moral component to them between the political left and the political right. And I think when voters for whom religious faith is important, when those voters vote conservative or Republican I think they are making a rational choice – that is, they know Republican office-holders are more likely to appoint judges to the courts that will continue to make rulings on issues like life and marriage and religious liberty that are going to be more in tune to those voters. And likewise I think the Democratic Party in the United States increasingly tends to be more secular and in the judges they appoint more hostile to those faith-based voters. So I think for the foreseeable future we are going to see this divide in American politics continue.
Barron: How do you think the issue will play out looking ahead to 2012 – there is a lot of interest in Mitt Romney’s presumed candidacy again the way in which some see Mike Huckabee having played a blocking role to his hopes in Iowa [in 2008] and the question of tensions between evangelicals and morons – do you have a view on that and whether evangelicals in the United States would support a Mormon for the presidency?
Bauer: You know the overwhelming majority of evangelicals I have no doubt would vote for somebody like Mitt Romney, particularly in a 2012 election against Barack Obama. But what’s unknown is whether a minority, maybe 5,6,7,8-percent of that evangelical vote that would normal vote Republican if 6,7,8-percent of them stayed at home or wrote in another name, in a very closely divided country which we appear to be that might be enough to throw that election to Barack Obama being re-elected. So that’s something that Mitt Romney will have to continue to deal with and overcome as he throws his hat in the ring again for the next election. Whatever Mitt Romney does, and I believe he is a good man and would make a great President, whatever he does I do think faith issues will play a major role in the election. There continue to be court decisions that are troubling Christian voters. Barack Obama has said and done a number of things that I think has irritated that voting bloc. So I believe in 2012 we could see the largest turnout of those voters we have seen in our history and I think it could be a very difficult development for President Obama to overcome if he hopes to get re-elected.
Barron: There has been a lot of attention recently on the so-called Tea Party movement – what do you think of that group and what impact they might have on the [Republican] nominating contest leading up to 2012?
Bauer: I think the key to the Tea Party movement, the thing that will make a difference in American politics is that a lot of the people that are involved appear to have never been involved in politics before. I spoken at a number of rallies and hosted radio programs where people will say they are Tea Party activists and almost all of them inevitably say they have never been involved with politics, they have seldom voted in the past and so I think this is a new force in conservative politics that’s likely to increase the election turnout and in doing that make it more likely that allies of President Obama are going to find it increasingly difficult to get elected in November this year and make it more difficult for President Obama to get re-elected in 2012.
Barron: There is an interesting parallel there between the significant number of first-time voters that President Obama was able to mobilise throughout the primary and caucus process and the general election of 2008 – is the Tea Party the answer to the Obama Movement?
Bauer: I would say it is, but I would say in a generally there has been a tremendous role-reversal in only about 18 months. If you go back to November of 2008, the polling data showed that those folks who were on the left side of the spectrum, and thus supportive of President Obama, not only supported him but supported him with great enthusiasm; they were much more likely to say they would definitely vote, they were much more likely to volunteer. Likewise, on the Republican side in November of 2008 people were demoralised – those who said they were going to vote for John McCain weren’t very enthusiastic about it, many of them were not willing topo volunteer. And here we are 18 months later and the enthusiasm level in the polling data seems to be all on the right. And so again I think President Obama has got a very difficult undertaking here to reignite that enthusiasm and somehow throw a blanket over that enthusiasm that has sprung up on the right to oppose his agenda.
Barron: is there a danger for the Republican Party in the Tea Party’s ability to mobilise the conservative base – some say there is a danger that the party could be made unelectable by being made too conservative – do you accept that’s possible or as a conservative is that a desirable thing?
Bauer: I don’t really think it’s likely to happen – that is that the Tea Party would push the Republican Party too far to the right. The things that the Tea Party cares most about, or the things that people involved in this thing known as the Tea Party which as you know is not an actual political party but it’s a movement per se – but the things they care most about are an end to deficit spending and a halt in the growth and power of the Federal Government in Washington D.C. And as chance would have it, those are things right now that the majority of the American people are for; the polling has really become quite dramatic on this – nearly two-thirds of the country say they want the deficit brought down, they want an end to deficit-spending and they want the size of Washington to shrink, not get bigger. So to the extent that the Tea Party Movement pushes the Republican Party to be more serious about being against deficit-spending and big government I think they are likely to make the Republican Party more electable, not less-electable.
Barron: Could there be a split? What happens if the Tea Party decides they want to run [Texas Representative and 2008 candidate] Ron Paul in 2012 and he takes away 15% of Republican voters?
Bauer: I don’t see that happening now, of course anything can happen in the future, but if Republicans pick up seats in the house and senate and perhaps even take control of one of those two houses after the election this November and then seriously pursue these items on the agenda; smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation etc, then I think in 2012 we are likely to keep the conservative coalition together and perhaps make President Obama a one-term President.