Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Ralph Reed and the politically fatal intersection of God and commerce

The best laid plans of Ralph Reed -- the onetime cherubic public face of the Christian Coalition and media-savvy front man for the religious right -- have been rudely derailed by Georgia voters, who apparently decided last night that this purported exemplar of moral virtue had become a poster boy for Washington sleaze.

It now does not appear that Reed, a high-rolling lobbyist in recent years, will be charting a presidential bid in 2016 or 2020 after all (that was indeed part of his master plan), because as he sought to climb the first rung on the electoral ladder, he was summarily yanked back to earth. So much for his former boast about leaving his opponents in “body bags.”

Step one of his ascent was to be the lieutenant governor job in Georgia. But he was thrashed in the Republican primary last night by a little-known conservative challenger, state senator Casey Cagle, who took 56 percent of the vote and dominated in the populous conservative-leaning suburbs around Atlanta. Thus, in defeat, Reed becomes the first electoral casualty of the Jack Abramoff scandal and, more broadly, of the Washington “culture of corruption,” where morals are traded in for big money.

Reed’s defeat is arguably a warning to other scandal-marred pols that the ‘06 elections won’t necessarily be a cakewalk. This morning, public interest activist David Donnelly, the national campaigns director at the Public Campaign Action Fund, contended that the Reed debacle sends a message: “Politicians who side with donors and big-moneyed interests, and not with voters, can’t depend on their base” to stay faithful on election day. He cited five Capitol Hill incumbents (four Republicans, one Democrat) who are seeking re-election despite being enmeshed in money and lobbying scandals.

In the Georgia race, Cagle successfully persuaded conservative primary voters that Reed’s longstanding ties to convicted felon Abramoff had essentially dented his halo (Time magazine had once referred to Reed as the “right hand of God”). Cagle said of Reed, “his values are for sale,” and a U.S. Senate report backed him up. Reed, in 1999, had crusaded on moral grounds against southern gambling bills -- when, in reality, he was taking gambling money from a native-American tribe (the Mississippi Band of Choctaws) that already owned casinos and was mainly interested in ridding themselves of gambling competition.

As he took heat for this in Georgia, Reed insisted that he hadn’t known he was being paid with gambling money (the Choctaws were Abramoff clients, and the money had been routed through Abramoff). Reed’s standard stump line was, “Had I known then what I know now, I would not have taken the work.”

The problem with his denial, however, is that it rang false. The Senate report contains some juicy emails. One, from 1999, features Abramoff telling Reed to “get me invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP.” And in 2000, Abramoff tells Reed, “The firm has held back all payments, pending receipt of a check from Choctaw.” It was this kind of evidence that prompted former Reed loyalist and Georgia lobbyist Clint Austin to announce in a primary eve Internet posting that he would vote for Cagle, because “Reed’s words and actions do not match up.”

In political circles, Reed’s struggles have prompted little sympathy. Centrist Democratic think tank denizen Marshall Wittmann, who once worked for Reed as a Christian Coalition lobbyist, wrote the other day, “Insofar as the Lord seems to treat the self-righteous with special disdain, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ralph gets a busy signal if he calls for divine intervention on his behalf.”

But Democrats generally might be well advised not to view Reed’s demise as a victory for their side. After all, he was beaten in a Republican primary by another conservative; the voters were not being asked to choose between him and a Democrat. And if he had won last might, he may well have beaten his Democratic opponent in November -- a plausible outcome in GOP-trending Georgia. In other words, Democrats still don’t know whether Abramoff baggage is fatal in an interparty contest.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that Ralph Reed can no longer lay claim to the loyalties of Christian conservatives, not after trading on their values for special-interest cash, and that in itself is a noteworthy development. Perhaps Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, best diagnosed Reed’s problem last April, when he told the press, in the wake of the Reed-Abramoff revelations, that “the Bible says you can’t serve God and Mammon.”