(CNSNews.com) - Soft-spoken and diminutive, presidential candidate Gary Bauer does not look like a barnstorming populist.
Looks can be deceiving.
It's well known that Bauer has made a return to old-fashioned moral values the foundation of his run for the White House. What's become more apparent after a series of Republican debates is that Bauer has begun to stake out populist stands on taxes, Social Security, and social welfare issues that are more statist and more amenable to government involvement than those of any other GOP candidate.
Bauer has taken a number of positions on various economic issues that differ sharply from his fellow contenders.
He is the only Republican candidate who opposes Social Security privatization, calling it "an unholy alliance between big government and Wall Street" that will deprive retirees and near-retirees of promised benefits. Instead, Bauer favors a 20 percent reduction in the Social Security tax and commensurate reduction in benefits down the road, but no change in the benefits of current retirees.
Bauer's odd-man-out stand on Social Security has led to some remarkable moments where his rhetoric sounds more like that of a Democratic congressman than a Republican presidential contender. For example, this month Bauer addressed the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) - not a group generally known for friendliness to conservatives - and denounced both frontrunner George W. Bush and publisher Steve Forbes for "going down the road fairly typical of politicians. . . . telling everybody they can have everything." Bauer also claimed that their plans could endanger the level of benefits for present Social Security recipients.
Unlike the House Republican leadership and most Republican presidential candidates, Bauer favors a patient's bill of rights for health care that includes the right to sue your HMO, and a prescription drug plan. He also supported the Clinton Justice Department in its antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, and he was quoted as saying that "the little guy won" in the case.
Like Forbes and other Republicans, Bauer favors a flat tax. But his tax plan, unveiled in a speech before the National Press Club in September, is strikingly different from standard Republican platforms. The plan includes an elimination of almost all business deductions, including longstanding deductions for investment in capital improvements, and taxes both business and capital gains at the same rate as individuals - 16 percent.
The proposal was packaged with a variety of populist rhetorical flourishes, such as his call to end "special breaks for the rich, privileged and politically powerful," and strident denunciations of "conventional Republican thinking" that allows "our corporate friend to pay zero while secretaries, cab drivers, waitresses, farmers and schoolteachers pay 17 percent." Bauer attacked such thinking as likely "to destroy the GOP" and elect Al Gore.
Shades of Pat Buchanan? Some observers think so. One Hill Republican, speaking anonymously to CNSNews.com, said that Bauer is filling the populist vacuum left by Buchanan's departure to the Reform party. "Bauer is Buchanan-lite, sort of a 'Mini-me' version of Pat," said the staffer, referring to the popular movie Austin Powers.
Unlike Buchanan, though, Bauer maintains that he has no plans to leave the Republican party, and in fact invokes the name of Ronald Reagan so frequently the magazine The Economist joked that "you get the impression that the Gipper has agreed to accept a post as his running-mate."
Others Republicans, especially from the economic libertarian wing of the party, see Bauer as sliding to the left on economic issues. "It's amazing to see someone who is supposedly a conservative Republican going to the AARP and denouncing fellow Republicans for wanting to destroy Social Security," Mike Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, told CNSNews.com. "Right now, Bauer would be more at home in the Democratic primary than the Republican."
It is perhaps overstating the case to suggest that Democratic voters would be comfortable with the former head of the Family Research Council, who frequently recounts in speeches how he has been "washed in the blood of Christ." Still, it is undeniable that Bauer is angling for support from politically marginalized blue-collar conservatives who count on the government to protect them from better-funded special interests. His speeches, which often rail against "Ivy League professors, Washington bureaucrats and Wall Street tycoons," recall those of populist reformers from the early 1900s, such as Sen. Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette of Wisconsin. As Bauer frequently reminds his listeners so as to buttress his damn-the-man message, he is the son of an alcoholic janitor from impoverished Newport, KY.
Bauer was given little chance to win the Republican nomination, even before George W. Bush vaulted to the front of the pack. Still, he has impressed many observers with his surprisingly sure-footed campaign, respectable fourth place finish at the Ames Straw Poll, and articulate performances in the Republican debates. It's obvious that Bauer enjoys positioning himself as the blue-collar outsider amongst several blue-blood presidential contenders. The question is, will his iconoclastic message catch on?