"Ronald Reagan has become a New Dealer, only 40 years too late," quips Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado. Leaning back in his chair, he smiles boyishly at the members of the Colorado League of Women Voters who have come to probe the views of their elected official.
When they respond favorably to his witticism, the youthful Democrat plunges into a discourse on the President's endorsement of the "social safety net" and of the specific shortcomings he sees in Mr. Reagan's proposals.
With his freckled face, reddish hair, and trim figure, Gary Hart looks the part of a Westerner.
He was born and raised in a small Kansas farm town. It wouldn't be hard to imagine him cast in the lead of a Louis L'Amour novel. Only the neat, blow-dry haircut, the meticulous fit of his camel-colored cashmere jacket, brown slacks, and pin-striped shirt point to the fact that he has divinity and law degrees from Yale and is one of the up-and-coming young leaders in the Democratic Party.
Political analysts lump Hart with Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts and California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. as the "Young Turks" who are most likely to take control of the party over the next decade.
"The senator is really tired of answering questions about his political aspirations," observes Hart's Denver assistant, Tom Gleason.
Of the three, Governor Brown has piqued the most public interest because of his unconventional and unpredictable personality. In a quieter and less flamboyant way, Senator Hart is also an unconventional figure. His political career began when he became George McGovern's campaign director in 1970.
Yet his reelection in the face of the conservative wave of 1980 is attributable, at least in part, to his adherence to a number of positions contrary to mainline liberalism. An example of this is his growing support for a strong military. Hart has made himself an expert on defense matters, particularly the Navy.
"Gary is an example of the 'still waters that run deep,'" says Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm, a friend and supporter. "If there are two kinds of people -- saints and sinners -- then Gary is a saint. He is serious, studious, introspective. He has a character and an intelligence which make him a force to be reckoned with." Governor Lamm adds.
Senator Hart also has been praised by his political opponents. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona has said, "You can disagree with Hart politically, but I have never met a man who is more honest and more moral." This remark angered Colorado Republicans who, in the last election, were trying to portray Hart as talking conservative in the state but voting liberal in Washington.
There is no doubt about Hart's liberal views. But his ideas on how to implement them are unconventional.
"I believe that we need to keep the fundamental principles of the Democratic Party, but change our methods," he says. Traditionally, liberals have tried to help those who cannot help themselves by setting up government bureaus to transfer cash or provide services, he explains. Today, however, liberals must seek "nonbureaucratic and nonprogrammatic" methods to achieve their ends.
"We must search for market mechanisms and economic incentives to get the private sector to do some of the things which liberalism has had the government do in the past 50 years," says the senator.
One example of this is the concept of "lifeline utility rates." This approach , which Hart advocates, would require utilities to offer a subsistence amount of electricity or gas to the poor and elderly at the utility's lowest rate. Generally, utilities give their lowest rates to their biggest customers. "No bureaucracy. No checks in the mail. Yet it would assist those who are having the hardest time coping with rising energy costs," Hart says.
Using this type of "nonbureaucratic" approach, Senator Hart would like to achieve the longtime liberal goal of "guaranteed income for those who cannot work and guaranteed work for those who are able." And while he has not worked out the best way to accomplish this, he is critical of current tinkering with social programs by the administration and Congress. A radical revision is needed, he says, while admitting that there is no political support for such an effort.
Last year, Hart offered his own idea for a US energy policy. At the center of this policy is his concern over US dependence on the politically volatile Middle East.
"Unquestionably, the most serious problem facing us in the next decade is continuing dependence on imported oil," says Hart. "It poses a serious threat to our economic security . . . [and] to our national security."
Hart is also a strong supporter of various environmental issues, and he has championed solar and alternative energy development.
As chairman of the Senate review of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, he is aware of the risks related to nuclear power. However , his concern over the Persian Gulf has led him to reluctantly support the threefold increse in nuclear power production currently planned, along with a doubling of coal consumption, as the keystone of his energy program.
While an advocate for stronger defense, Hart has not been uncritical of the Pentagon. In an article published last year in Strategic Review, he criticized the course that the national debate on defense has taken since the Vietnam war as overly concerned with quantity -- the size of the defense budget -- rather than on quality.
"History suggests that it is possible to spend great sums and actually weaken one's defense," he wrote, citing the French Maginot Line as an example. "Indiscriminate calls for more defense spending make no more sense than indiscriminate efforts to cut military budgets."
Last year, his interest in the Navy prompted him to take an unusual step: He applied for and received a commission as a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy Reserve.