Brief Lives April 2004

Second Coming

Ralph Reed, now born again as a political strategist, has moved on from doing God's work to doing George W. Bush's
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Few figures in American politics seem more fixed in time and place than Ralph Reed. As the brash, boyish director of the Christian Coalition a decade ago, Reed personified the ascendant religious right: he was an articulate, media-savvy spokesman who put to rest the predominant stereotype of religious conservatives as fiery televangelists, and led them into the modern political era. An organizational genius, Reed transformed the remnants of Pat Robertson's failed 1988 presidential campaign into a potent political force, more than a million strong at its peak. The Christian Coalition was instrumental in shaping the Republican Party of the 1990s, and helped Newt Gingrich bring off the Republican revolution of 1994. For a time Reed appeared likely to be the power behind the curtain for years to come. In 1995 Time seemed only mildly hyperbolic when it extolled him on the cover as "the right hand of God."

The following year, however, the Republican Party of Gingrich and Reed seemed to expire after Bob Dole's defeat by Bill Clinton. Reed's aggressive style of conservatism alienated moderate voters. He left the Christian Coalition in 1997, just as its influence began to wane, and largely disappeared from the public eye.

But he did not abandon politics. Reed returned to Georgia, where he had been raised, and began anew as a secular political consultant. The return home could not have provided much professional solace: the governor's mansion was in the hands of a popular Democrat, and by 2000 both the state's Senate seats, too, were held by Democrats. The consulting firm that Reed founded, Century Strategies, had an inauspicious start when most of its clients, including Alabama Governor Fob James, lost their 1998 races. Nevertheless, over the next four years Reed helped do for the Georgia Republican Party something much like what he'd done for the Coalition—organizing and rebuilding it from the ground up. He was elected state party chairman in 2001, and in 2002 the Georgia Republicans won a historic upset. Sonny Perdue became the first Republican in thirty-nine gubernatorial elections to win, and a Republican congressman, Saxby Chambliss, defeated the Democratic senator Max Cleland. Georgia's other senator, Zell Miller, is a Democrat in name only, who has already endorsed George W. Bush—so in practical terms Georgia was fully Republican. "What happened in Georgia in 2002 was a once-in-a-decade performance," says the political analyst Charlie Cook.

Even if it had many causes (not least the tremendous appeal of the President, whose visits in behalf of Republican candidates Reed leveraged to maximum effect), this startling success testified to Reed's enduring skill as a political strategist. The Georgia resurgence went a long way toward detoxifying his image, proving that he could succeed outside the context of a politics whose very nature was implicitly rejected by his party's embrace of "compassionate" conservatism. The Bush Administration has acknowledged Reed's achievement by putting him in charge of the Southeast for the upcoming re-election campaign—recognition that confers high standing in the current Republican hierarchy. Beneath that very practical tribute lies a greater honor, and a challenge. Because most southeastern states are reliably Republican, Reed's true responsibility is to reprise his Georgia performance in the state that analysts of both parties believe could once again determine the next President: Florida.

For all his star wattage as a media figure, Reed's political success with the Christian Coalition stemmed from his ability to master the drudgery of grassroots organizing. Reed ran leadership schools and activist training seminars, and his early understanding of such tactics as barraging politicians with e-mails, faxes, and phone calls made the Christian Coalition—with its 2,000 chapters nationwide ready to coalesce and strike quickly almost anywhere in the country—the feared and respected outfit that it was. Reed once bragged, "We're the McDonald's of American politics."

He applied the same missionary zeal to organizing the party in Georgia before the 2002 elections, assembling 3,000 volunteers and 500 paid workers who significantly lifted Republican turnout. "Organization has been my background since I started with the College Republicans, twenty-five years ago," Reed told me when I visited him recently in his office at Century Strategies, in suburban Atlanta. "When I took my kids trick-or-treating the Thursday before that election, I brought some door hangers that had our slate of candidates and a picture of the President with Sonny Perdue and Saxby Chambliss that said, 'The Bush Team. Vote Tuesday.' Every house my kids went to to get candy, I either handed it to the person or hung it on the door handle. Now, you might say, 'Big deal. You hung forty door hangers.' But what if three thousand people hung forty door hangers? Do the math."

He continued, "I went up to Ray Buchanan, the defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons, who lives down the street from me. He and my wife are friends. We were going down the street with our kids, and Ray happened to be out in the driveway, and I went up to him and handed him a flyer and said, 'I want you to vote for Saxby and Sonny on Tuesday.' And he said, 'I will. I'll vote for them.'" Reed stressed that voter contact like this on a broad scale is the key to winning Florida, and that organizing the state, and registering 75,000 new voters, is the first order of business on his regular trips there. (He was practiced enough to laugh when I asked if he would organize the Miami Dolphins.)

Reed, now forty-two years old, still speaks in perfectly crafted sound bites and slightly louder than one expects in private conversation, as if a bank of television cameras were still trained on him (his sharp laugh is even louder). His position as a political consultant to Bush is a subordinate one, however, and demands that he never outshine his client. Here Reed struggles a bit. His double-breasted navy suit, impeccably knotted silk tie, and matching gold cufflinks and wristwatch are more Donald Trump than Organization Man. And the breathtaking oratorical skills he so often displayed on behalf of religious conservatism are in stark contrast to those of the man he now works for.

Reed told me that he assumes Florida will be as closely contested this time around as last. When I asked how he would persuade swing voters, he delivered the most eloquent rationale I've heard for going Bush's way: "A Bush Republican is someone who is conservative but also compassionate, someone who is principled but also builds bridges and reaches out, somebody who remains true to the core values of our party but also gains credibility that in historic terms has never been achieved by Republicans on issues like health care, education, and immigration, enabling us to reach out to young people, and seniors, and women, and Hispanics." As Reed explained how his organization would spread the good news, one could hear familiar echoes: "Under his guidance and leadership we are strengthening the economy, winning the war on terror, and strengthening the institutions of family and marriage." He was speaking of the President, but it was easy to imagine that he was referring to Him.

Even if Reed downplays his past with the Christian Coalition as he determinedly tries to emphasize the need to re-elect Bush, his ties to evangelicals are an important factor in the campaign. Karl Rove has stated his belief that as many as four million evangelicals who might have supported Bush in 2000 did not vote. Reed has a shrewd understanding of how to rally them. When Bush lost to John McCain in that year's New Hampshire primary, and appeared in danger of losing the nomination, Reed's firm swamped evangelicals in South Carolina with 400,000 phone calls and mailings critical of McCain, which were crucial to Bush's decisive win there. "The Christian Coalition was more an electoral machine than a lobby," Nina J. Easton writes in Gang of Five, a collective biography of Reed and four other conservatives, "and as such it could claim spectacular success, especially in turning out voters in close races." Reed's track record of exploiting cultural divides, as well as of turning out voters, would be a boon in any southern state—but particularly in Florida, which in 2000 was decided by 537 votes.

If Reed delivers Florida and Bush wins re-election, it will be a huge step forward in Reed's career as a secular political operative, establishing—or, rather, re-establishing—him at the national level. He will have arrived for the second time, and by quite a different path, at a level that many never reach once. Reed may not again become cover-of-Time famous, but he will at last be poised to play a significant role in the Republican-controlled Washington that he has worked all his adult life to bring about.

What that role may be is a subject of considerable speculation. It was once believed that Reed returned to Georgia with the goal of running for the Senate. But with Saxby Chambliss newly elected, and the likelihood that Zell Miller, who is retiring this year, will be replaced by a Republican, Reed has so thoroughly succeeded in transforming the state into a Republican stronghold that there is no obvious office left for him to pursue. Further talk had Reed coveting the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee—the party's top political-operative slot. In keeping with his studied deflecting of attention from himself to his cause, Reed made great drama of not addressing his future when I pressed the topic.

He insists that he does not view his success as a political consultant as a return to power, and he claims, not implausibly, to find a thread of consistency in his successive careers. "I left the Christian Coalition," he told me, "because I wanted to help elect a Republican President and was legally prevented from doing so directly" because he worked for a nonprofit organization. "I had a sneaking suspicion that it might be George W. Bush. I really liked him. The fact that he ultimately decided to run for President was like a dream come true."

With the skill of a veteran Reed had shifted the conversation back to Bush. As we rose to part, he smiled and made one last pitch. "The story is not about me or about any member of the political team," he said gravely. "It's about the President and his leadership and how he is inspiring the most extensive grassroots campaign in modern political history." Once you have moved millions, the taste never deserts you.

Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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