Reed and The End Of a Road

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, July 21, 2006

AYNOR, S.C. -- A little more than six years ago, the voters in South Carolina's Republican presidential primary set the GOP on a clear course. The news of this week, particularly from neighboring Georgia, suggests that journey is reaching an end.

On Feb. 19, 2000, George W. Bush defeated John McCain here with an approach that was to mark his presidency. It emphasized the importance of rallying "the Republican base," particularly conservative Christians, and the imperative of attacking political opponents in times of trouble -- preferably through surrogates who could provide plausible deniability.

One of the architects of the Bush strategy was Ralph Reed, a brilliant political operative who built the Christian Coalition into a formidable force and then made serious money as a political consultant.

When Bush seemed on the brink of political collapse after McCain overwhelmed him in the New Hampshire primary, Reed went to work. He organized the churches and got his phone banks busy contacting South Carolina's many religious voters. The McCain campaign was bitter over the nasty things spread about their candidate. McCain loyalists blamed Reed. He denied anything out of bounds, and won many political chits in Bush's world.

But a funny thing happened to Reed this week: He lost a Republican primary in a Southern state -- exactly the sort of electorate that Reed was an expert at courting. In a race for lieutenant governor of Georgia, Reed was defeated by Casey Cagle, a state senator who initially didn't seem to have a prayer against his charming and charismatic foe.

Reed was upended by his very success as a consultant: An old friend named Jack Abramoff had some Indian gambling clients who wanted to beat back the effort of a competing tribe to open a casino. Abramoff arranged for Reed's companies to be paid $4 million to organize grass-roots anti-gambling sentiment to oppose the competitor's casino bid. So Reed got to be on the anti-gambling side publicly, even as he was being paid privately by gambling interests to do what they needed done.

It all might have worked splendidly had Abramoff not gotten into a spot of trouble. The public interest in Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges, forced Reed's gambling transaction to the surface, and Cagle made the most of it. One Cagle ad declared that Reed had "sold out our conservative values" and concluded: "Ralph Reed: His values are for sale." It's the sort of attack Reed himself might have admired under other circumstances. Cagle won by 12 points.

It's useful to go back to South Carolina, where McCain ran as a reformer in 2000, opposed to the influence of big money on politics. A few South Carolina politicians bravely stood up for McCain against their party's establishment. One of them was a House member named Lindsey Graham, now winning accolades for his independence as a U.S. senator -- in particular for his insistence that even captured terrorists and enemy combatants need to be treated under a lawful regime guaranteeing them certain rights.

As Graham put it in an interview, the United States needs to show that it "can win the war on terror by holding to our values." That "values" word again.

Surely it was coincidence, but I couldn't help notice that in the same week Reed lost, Graham was celebrated in a front-page New York Times profile representative of his rise to national prominence. I chatted with Graham by phone on Tuesday (as it happens, before the polls had closed in Georgia) and Graham suggested that his party needs to unlearn some of the lessons supposedly taught six years ago by his state's primary.

Republicans, he said, need to move beyond mobilizing their base "because our base isn't big enough to propel us to victory 10 years from now."

Conservatives -- of which Graham is emphatically one -- should be wary of a politics based on the idea that to satisfy your own core supporters, "the other side's got to be miserable."

"I want conservatism to be seen as a good solution to people's problems and not go the way of liberals," Graham said. "Liberalism is not a title easily worn now, and that could happen to conservatism."

The coming debate in the Republican Party, in other words, will not be between conservatives and moderates, but between conservatives who know their side confronts a crisis and those who don't.

When I asked Graham for any comment on Reed's campaign, he laughed and replied simply: "I'll pass." Graciousness comes easily to South Carolinians and is especially becoming of those who eventually find their way toward vindication.

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