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Wednesday, Jun 30, 2010, 8:59 am

Ralph Reed Redux: Will GOP’s Old Tricks Work in New Era of Diversity?

By Theo Anderson
By Theo Anderson

Ralph Reed, the former wunderkind of the conservative movement, is back. He’s older—turning 50 next year—but probably not much wiser.

Reed was last seen going down in flames in the 2006 Republican primary election for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Before that, as the leader of the Christian Coalition through the 1990s, Reed played a large role in the GOP’s decisive congressional wins in 1994. The following year, Time put him on its cover, calling him “The Right Hand of God.” In 2000, he was a key player in George W. Bush’s election.

Reed’s reputation and his political career started cracking up during the 2005 trial of Jack Abramoff, the corrupt super lobbyist who’s now serving a four-year prison sentence. Abramoff asked Reed, a longtime friend, to work on behalf of a Mississippi Indian tribe that wanted to stifle casino-gambling competition. Reed obliged and rallied his anti-gambling Christian followers against planned casinos in nearby states. When the connection was revealed, he denied knowing that he was working for gambling interests.

But voters apparently didn’t buy it. Reed suffered what the New York Times called “an embarrassing defeat” and soon found himself in Time again, under the headline “The Rise and Fall of Ralph Reed.”

Now, inevitably, Reed is rising from the ashes of disgrace and seeking redemption. Last year, he founded the Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC), a lobbying organization devoted to—what else?— the good old “virtues of faith, hard work, marriage, family, personal responsibility, and helping the least among us.” For the upcoming elections in 2010 and 2012, Reed has predicted that the FFC will register about a million “faith-based voters and make tens of millions of voter contacts in what may be the largest conservative get-out-the-vote effort in modern political history.”

For the short-term, at least, Reed’s prospects look good. A new projection by FiveThirtyEight, the political polling website, shows that Democrats will almost certainly lose four Senate seats this fall. Contests for four more seats held by Democrats are extremely tight. Meanwhile, Democrats have a better-than-even chance of taking just one seat now held by a Republican (in Ohio). So it looks to be a good election season for the GOP.

And there are other encouraging signs for Republicans. A poll recently conducted by Gallup and posted on the FFC website showed that 42 percent of Americans identify as conservative, while only 20 percent identify as liberal. Both orientations have made gains since 1992, when 36 percent of respondents identified as conservative and 17 percent identified as liberal. In the same period, the moderate identity declined from 43 to 35 percent.

What to make, then, of a recent analysis by the Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira? In a report titled “Democratic Change and the Future of the Parties,” Teixeira finds good news at nearly every turn for Democrats.

Republicans face the fundamental problem that their base—older, and mostly white, conservative Christians—is slowly disappearing. For the moment they are overrepresented in American politics, since older people tend to vote at higher rates than the young. But, as Teixeira writes, “by the 2016 election (or 2020 at the outside) the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even further down the road, white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population by 2040, and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the Republican base, will be only about a third of that—a minority within a minority.”

Teixeira is so optimistic because the demographic groups that will fill this vacuum tend to vote Democratic—blacks, Hispanics, Asians, youth, and white-collar professionals. The latter two groups gave Obama about two-thirds of their votes in 2008. Racial and ethnic minorities tend to vote Democratic at even higher rates.

So, does Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition represent the last gasp of the 1990s-style culture-war model? Teixeira thinks so. He writes that the GOP’s positions on key social issues—its anti-gay rights stance, most notably—are “too extreme and out of touch.”

What’s fascinating about all of this is that the policy drift in American politics since the New Deal has been firmly toward the liberal side of the spectrum. Liberals have won, or are winning, the civil-rights struggles, the battle for environmental protections, the debate over providing access to health insurance and medical care to all Americans, the question of whether the government should play a role in regulating corporations and the economy, and so on. This is not to say that we’re anywhere close to the ideal, or that progress hasn’t been infuriatingly slow, or that there won’t be reverses and setbacks. But since the 1930s, we’ve moved a lot nearer to the liberal vision of the good society than the conservative vision.

Yet only one in five Americans will identify as liberal. Why?

The answer has to do, partly, with the question of taxation and economic freedom. Since Ronald Reagan, conservatives have played this card brilliantly. It’s no accident that the second point in FFC’s list of principles, after the required nod to the value of life and the sanctity of marriage, is a jab at big government and a call for “lower taxes and fiscal responsibility to unleash the creative energy of entrepreneurs.”

In practice, Republicans have been anything but fiscally responsible, and the agenda of lower taxes pushed by George W. Bush helped dig the gigantic fiscal hole we’re now in. But as a matter of branding and marketing, the fiscal-responsibility smoke and mirrors has worked beautifully.

It may be true, as Teixeira believes, that the GOP’s social conservatism portends deep electoral problems. But I’m not so sure. On at least one social issue—abortion—young people and minorities tend to be more conservative than the general population. And on the most divisive hot-button social issue at the moment, gay rights, Republicans will probably reconcile themselves to the mainstream and become increasingly tolerant over the next decade, just as they eventually made peace with the feminist and civil-rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

So I suspect that there’s still a lot of life left in the GOP. The culture-war strategy may fade, at least temporarily, but in the economic realm, the party's weird blend of populist rhetoric (anti-tax, anti-government) and governing reality (pro-spending, especially on the military and corporate welfare) is a proven winner. This schizophrenia plays to a deep ambivalence in American society. We love the services that government provides. We just refuse to pay higher taxes for them. And we approve of the social changes that federal legislation has helped bring about. But we won’t accept that “big government” can do anything right.

As long as we’re so deeply in denial, the GOP will have reason to cheer. And the Ralph Reeds of American politics will always have a shot at redemption.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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