ralphreed.jpgRalph Reed has been in the news a lot in the last week for helping to promote an Atlanta fundraiser for John McCain on Monday. The Democrats got a lot of mileage out of lashing the Arizona known for his championing of ethics reform in Washington to a former buddy and business associate of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. God-o-Meter received 11 emails from the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee decrying the McCain-Reed connection. Reed wound up skipping the McCain fundraiser, but notes that he was never officially implicated in the Abramoff scandal. When it saw Reed’s name in the news, God-o-Meter remembered that the former Christian Coalition executive director (and now, novelist) masterminded George W. Bush’s unprecedented 2004 evangelical outreach operation. So GOM called to get Reed’s take on the current contest.

McCain led the Senate investigation into the Abramoff scandal, which included investigating your own activites. Was there a turning point recently when you warmed up to the Arizona senator?
On values issues, Senator McCain has a 26-year pro life voting record in the House and Senate. I have disagreed with him in the past on embryonic stem cell research, and for that reason was pleased with his remarks at Saddleback, when he stated his belief that recent breakthroughs in skin and adult stem cells may make this entire debate academic. He’s reliably pro-life. He and Cindy McCain adopted a daughter from Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh and raised her as their own. There are a lot of people who have talked to pro-life talk. John and Cindy have walked it.
Contrast that with Barack Obama on partial birth abortion, court appointments, the Illinois version of the Infant Born Alive Act, which he either voted against or kept from going to the floor or voted present on, and it’s a stark contrast on the issues. On the Illinois state version of the Infants Born Alive Act, I read his comments on the floor when he chaired the committee and reviewed the legislation. His concern was that if the bill passed, that it would pose a danger to Roe v. Wade. By that argument, you can’t vote for anything that would preserve the life of the child after he’s born because it would impinge in Roe. That’s really a position that is out of the mainstream.
McCain’s come under a lot of fire for his anemic outreach efforts to Christian conservatives. As someone who once led that movement, how do you assess those efforts?
The McCain campaign gets a bum rap to some extent because political reporters everyone are looking backward through the prism of the Bush-Cheney ’04 effort, which was anomalous. A faith-based grassroots effort on that scale had never happened before in the modern history of the Republican Party. It was a Herculean effort that was well staffed and funded. I’ve worked on seven presidential campaigns, and I had never seen anything like it, not in the Bush campaign in 2000 or the Dole campaign or the Bush 1 campaign or the Reagan campaigns. In most of those campaigns, the social conservative piece was a letterhead efforts—there was an advisory committee of leaders, they might have had a few receptions, but that was all. There were no social conservative team leaders, no church-based or precinct-based organization, no voter registration of GOTV effort. That was basically true going back to the 1980s.
But Republican organizing depended on Moral Majority or Christian Coalition or Concerned Women for America or other organizations. Why did the Bush campaign do that work in 2004? Because we got outhustled on base turnout by the Gore campaign in 2000, and we attempted to maximize turnout among a broad range of constituencies. And not just among evangelicals, but also small business owners, women, veterans, Hispanics. Bush received 42- percent of the Hispanic vote and closed the gender gap to only four points. It was really an across-the-board effort to get every vote to the polls. Social conservatives were one part of a much broader effort.
In 2004, Florida and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Iowa-a lot of the battleground states had huge conservative Catholic and evangelical components. This time, the electorate is totally different. This time, the independent vote is not seven percent as in 2004, it’s 20 to 27 percent. To win McCain needs to get the votes of 20-percent of Democrats and 55-percent of independents. So he’s running a different kind of campaign. He can’t just rerun the Bush campaign of ’04. Having said that, he should be solid on the social issues, and I believe he will be.
The McCain does need to do more to organize social conservatives in the battleground states, but I understand those effort are underway, and I think they will get more muscular in the weeks to come.
Barack Obama is working harder for evangelical votes than any Democratic presidential nominee in decades. Do you see signs that he’s making progress?
Obama is running the most aggressive outreach to evangelical voters for a Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But it is not yielding much fruit at all. This is demonstrated not just in the TIME magazine poll but across all the published polls. One of the reasons Obama’s efforts are so unsuccessful is that he’s the most out-of-the-mainstream candidate in the modern era on values issues, abortion, taxes and strengthening the family. If you look at just the abortion issue, he wants to repeal the Hyde Amendment (which was signed into law by Jimmy Carter and was reaffirmed with a rape and incest exception by Bill Clinton), opposes the partial birth abortion ban, and opposed the Illinois version of the Infants Born Alive Act. His comment at Saddleback that determining when a baby has human rights was “above my pay grade” was a gaffe that offended many conservative people of faith. On judges, he said he would not have nominated Clarence Thomas to the Court, who is a hero to many pro-family Roman Catholics as well as evangelicals, and he voted against John Roberts for the U.S. Supreme Court.
In spite of all this hope that birthed a wish that birthed a strategy, the campaign by the Democrats to attract evangelical votes by engaging in so-called “God talk,” that is, quoting Scripture and talking about Jesus, has been an utter failure. You look at the recent TIME magazine poll and McCain leads 70-percent to 19-percent among evangelicals. The Pew Survey has McCain leading 68 to 24 percent among evangelicals. In both surveys, Obama is doing worse at this point in the election cycle than John Kerry was doing four years ago. That is truly remarkable. If McCain keeps doing the right things, and I believe he will, he can win at least as high a percentage of the evangelical vote as Bush did in 2000 and maybe as much as in 2004.
The Jeremiah Wright controversy was a turning point, not simply because of the controversy but because of the way he handled it. There are not a lot of people who are frequent churchgoers that believe you can be a member of a church for 20 years and be married by the pastor and have your children baptized by the pastor and have the title of your book named after a sermon of the pastor and then say ‘I wasn’t there’ [during his controversial sermons] or ‘I did not know he held those views.’ That strains credulity and is not going to be persuasive for a lot of faith-based voters.
Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum with Obama and McCain was a faith-based event that was probably unimaginable during your days at Christian Coalition in the 1990s.
When I think back to the ’90s when the Christian Coalition was attacked for registering people of faith to vote and distributing nonpartisan voting guides, and now the first forum where McCain and Obama appeared in together was Rick Warren’s church, I have to chuckle because it shows how far we’ve come. The involvement of people of faith is no longer really that controversial. It is accepted as a bright thread in the larger fabric of American democracy. Whether you’re a liberal or conservative, that’s an enormously positive development.
What was your takeaway for the Saddleback forum?
I thought Rick Warren did a wonderful job. He asked all the tough questions, but he was also fair and let the candidates fully answer the questions without letting them give their stump speeches. I thought it was the best single candidate forum of the entire campaign so far. The answers not only showed the differences between the two candidates on world-view on policy issues, they were also deeply revealing of character, temperament, and personality. Rick Warren did a real service to the country, and like all Americans, I’m really grateful that both candidates went. I just wish that Obama would agree to McCain’s invitation to attend more town hall meetings. We need a campaign with more of these civil public forums, not just negative ads and attack press releases.


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