Ralph Reed: Too Successful For The Gop's Good

April 25, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Ralph Reed's decision to resign as executive director of the Christian Coalition has set off a round of encomiums from the religious and political conservatives for whom he has done so much. The praise is deserved.

More than anyone else, including founder Pat Robertson, Mr. Reed has made the coalition an imposing force in American politics. He has given the movement a youthful and positive face, an image that contrasts sharply with the more common perception of the religious right as wary and defensive.

On the face of it, Mr. Reed's talents as an organizer have been a boon to the Republican Party. The Christian Coalition distributed 45 million voter guides to 125,000 churches last fall, and the "guidance" was almost universally to vote Republican. The coalition claims almost 2 million members, but its reach has extended to millions of other fundamentalist Christians, and under Mr. Reed it has achieved a veto power in the Republican Party as absolute as any that liberal groups such as the AFL-CIO can exert on the Democratic Party.

As Mr. Reed put it, "People of faith now play a major role on a wide range of issues, from welfare to taxes, from abortion to school prayer, from urban poverty to racism. We now have what we have always sought -- a place at the table."

The growth of the influence of the religious right is, however, at best a mixed blessing for the Republicans. In fact, you can make a strong case that the religious right represents the single most serious problem for the party if it hopes to continue its control of Congress and capture the White House as well.

Although Mr. Reed likes to talk about broadening the concerns of the Christian Coalition, the issues that bind the fundamentalists together in politics are social questions -- most important, their opposition to abortion and homosexual rights.

They present themselves as the defenders of "family values," but what is most significant politically is their absolutist position on abortion. If you support abortion rights, you are "a baby killer" and you cannot be nominated for president even if you are, let's say, Colin Powell.

Most Americans disagree

But, as the polls show, most Americans don't agree with this position. Nor do most Republicans. They essentially agree with the Supreme Court decision in the Pennsylvania case that abortion should be available but could be subject to state restrictions that do not impose an "undue burden" on a woman.

The abortion conflict is far more scarring than most that divide factions in a party. This is not just an argument over methods of achieving a common goal, as you might describe the differences between Republicans who are deficit hawks and those who are supply-siders in their prescriptions for a healthy economy. In this case, one side is condemning the opposing position as morally indefensible. Even in the conflict within the party between the Goldwater conservatives and Rockefeller progressives 30 years ago, neither side went that far.

The result is that Republicans who hold moderate positions on social questions feel alienated from their party, even when they agree with its positions on such things as taxes and economic policy.

That reaction against someone else's definition of "family values" was obvious among both Republican and independent voters in the 1996 election. President Clinton carried suburban counties with predominantly Republican voting populations around many major cities, apparently because many of those voters crossed over at the presidential level or didn't vote at all.

Ralph Reed was not solely responsible for that problem, of course; Bob Dole had something to do with it. But Mr. Reed has been perhaps the major force in creating a voting bloc that Republican presidential aspirants will feel they have to satisfy again the next time around. That is not a bright prospect for a party hoping to dominate American politics for the next generation.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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