Ralph Reed: The Crash of the Choir-Boy Wonder

A Right-Wing Star is Born

Ralph Reed on cover of Time MagazineDespite a $12 million budget and a quarter-million dues paying members, the Christian Coalition could not successfully help George H.W. Bush win re-election in 1992.  At the time, Reed was preaching to the Coalition that “the first strategy [for success], and in many ways the most important strategy, for evangelicals is secrecy.”[31]  But the chapters Reed was creating around the country were anything but subtle about their right-wing agendas and quickly began writing party platforms that called for everything from mandatory reporting of AIDS “carriers” to bans on homosexuals in health care, day care and teaching positions.  The Washington state chapter even went so far as to demand US reoccupation of the Panama Canal.[32]

Reed’s stealth strategy did not work and after Bill Clinton won the election, he, the Coalition, and the rest of the right-wing were forced to shoulder much of the blame - mainly because they had taken over the Republican National Convention and turned it into a prime-time, right-wing pep rally, frightening off many of the voters Reed had been hoping to court.[33] 

Reed’s goal of making the Religious Right a key part of the Republican mainstream had failed, at least temporarily, and the loss prompted Reed to contemplate getting out of politics all together.  But such thoughts were fleeting, because when President Clinton attempted to lift the ban on gays serving in the US military, Reed sensed an opportunity and pounced.  Via Robertson’s “700 Club” broadcast, Reed orchestrated a flurry of opposition to the move, generating so many calls that they managed to jam the Capitol Hill switchboard.[34] Reed had managed to politically and powerfully mobilize the right-wing grassroots by exploiting Robertson’s reach into the homes of evangelicals and was quickly back in the game. 

Yet he still maintained his hopes of “casting a wider net,” to quote the title of one of his own articles, beyond the Coalition’s right-wing, evangelical base.[35]  But that proved difficult with Robertson publicly making statements such as “the feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians."[36]

With the mid-term elections in 1994, the Christian Coalition was revitalized and back at work, helping to elect right-wing candidates to Congress.  The Republican take-over prompted Reed to boast that the election “signaled our political arrival.” [37]  Yet the Coalition’s election work was so blatantly political that it led to an investigation by the Federal Election Commission.  As a tax-exempt organization, it was illegal for the Coalition to engage in express political advocacy, yet the organization had distributed more than 30 million voters’ guides that distorted candidates’ positions in a manner that inevitably benefited Republican candidates.[38] Because of this and other political activities, the organization was finally stripped of its tax-exempt status by the IRS in 1999.[39]

After the “Republican Revolution” in 1994, Reed closely aligned the Coalition’s agenda with that of the right-wing Republicans who had just captured control of the House of Representatives, even introducing his own “Contract With the American Family” that echoed the Republicans’ “Contract With America.”[40] After the election, Reed stated that passage of a school prayer amendment was “not our top priority,” but when Reed appeared, flanked by a mass of high-ranking Republican leaders, at a press conference unveiling the “Contract With the American Family,” the prayer amendment was listed as its “top priority.”[41] For Reed, the election signaled that “we have finally gained what we have always sought: a place at the table.”[42]

Still, Reed was growing worried that the Right had allowed itself to become defined and, in his words, “ghettoized by a narrow band of issues like abortion, homosexual rights and prayer in school” that hampered its ability to become a mainstream force.  To counter this “ghettoization,” Reed set out to broaden the Coalition’s agenda to include issues like health care.  Thus, when President Clinton announced his health care plan, Reed unleashed the Coalition’s most expensive grassroots campaign ever.  The organization spent $1.4 million opposing the plan by focusing primarily on its supposed ramifications for abortion, homosexual rights, and sex education, with Reed warning at one point that it was nothing but “a Trojan Horse for a not-so-hidden agenda to …promote a radical social agenda.”[43]  

Just as Reed worked to put the Coalition’s muscle behind the Republican leadership’s agenda, he likewise continued his efforts to make the organization a key player within the Republican Party and, in 1996, turned the Coalition into a driving force behind Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. The more moderate Dole was not the Right’s first choice – that honor went to ideologue Pat Buchanan, who managed to place second in the Iowa Republican primary and win the primary in New Hampshire.  It was at that point that Reed pulled out all the stops and delivered South Carolina, and the nomination, to Dole.[44]  But it came at a price.

[31] People for the American Way, “The Christian Coalition After Ralph Reed,” September 1997

[32] People For the American Way, “The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition,” September 1995

[33] Gang of Five, pp.241-248

[34] Gang of Five, p.253

[35] Gang of Five, p.257

[36] People For the American Way, “The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition,” September 1995

[37] Weekly Standard, “A Decade of Reed,” June 27, 2005

[38] People For the American Way, “Breaking the Rules: The Christian Coalition and Elections,” August 1996

[39] Thomas B. Edsall and Hanna Rosin, “IRS Denies Christian Coalition Tax-Exempt Status,” The Washington Post, June 11, 1999

[40] Gang of Five, p.286

[41] People For the American Way, “The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition,” September 1995

[42] Rob Boston, “King of the Hill?,” Church & State, June 1995

[43] People For the American Way, “The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition,” September 1995

[44] Gang of Five, pp.346-347

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