Honesty in Politics

Ralph Reed next Tuesday will try to resurrect his political career, but he must still be soaked by the good dunking in Lake Woebegone that Garrison Keillor gave him last week.

Keillor wrote, "If a preacher secretly accepts a bucket of money from a saloonkeeper to organize a temperance rally at a rival saloon and maybe send in a gang of church ladies to chop up the bar with their little hatchets, this would strike you and me as sleazy, but others are willing to make allowances, and so Ralph Reed’s political career is still alive and breathing in Georgia. He has bathed himself in tomato juice and hopes to smile his way through the storm."

Keillor is often a biased political observer, but he’s right this time. Reed, rolling the dice, is in a close race with Casey Cagle for the Georgia GOP nomination for lieutenant governor. Normally a race at that level would not attract national attention, but this one is, because of Reed’s fame as former Christian Coalition head and his new infamy as Jack Abramoff’s tool in manipulating evangelicals.

Reed once had a big lead in the poll and a huge lead in fundraising. But support has dropped as the Senate Indian Affairs Committee showed conclusively that Abramoff and Reed from 1999 to 2002 schemed to protect the profits of Indian casinos by whipping up evangelical opposition to the attempts of other tribes to set up their own casinos.

Keillor accurately summarizes Reed’s trail of manipulations from Alabama to Texas: He enlisted Baptists "in a fight against one saloon while he was on the payroll of another. Imagine if Ralph Nader had solicited money from Ford and Chrysler when he went after General Motors’ Corvair … A true party loyalist would withdraw from the Republican primary for lieutenant governor of Georgia and say, ‘I will not allow this mess to distract people from the good work of my party.’ But Mr. Reed is no quitter."

Nope, Reed’s not quitting the race, and Republicans head into November with the devastating tagline, "the party of corruption." Reed could have been open and honest, especially since conservatives can legitimately differ on gambling issues. Battles about gambling expansion often feature anti-gambling groups (small in size and dollars) in temporary alliances-of-sorts with existing casinos. Some anti-gambling groups accept that reality as the cost of keeping gambling from expanding. Others refuse to use gambling money. Reed could have given folks who trusted him the choice, but instead he used the reputation he then had for integrity to fool those who were too easily led.

For his labors, Reed’s business received at least $4 million from Abramoff, but also his scorn. Abramoff wrote to his associate Michael Scanlon on Valentine’s Day, 2002, "I know you (we!) hate him [Reed], but it does give us good cover and patter … give him some chump change." The Senate report showed scoffing at Reed’s earlier reputation as a moral leader: When a tribal public relations representative observed that Mr. Reed was an "ideologue," the report quotes Mr. Abramoff’s reply — "as far as the cash goes."

Now, we’ll have to find out how many Georgia Republicans are willing to put aside questions of character and cast their votes according to rhetoric. Some are arguing that Reed is on the right side on issues they care about, so what does it matter if his character is questionable? Well, we’ve found out again and again in American history how voters who choose manipulators because they vote the right way eventually lose out: Republicans with Richard Nixon and Democrats with Bill Clinton had their comeuppances. Now we’ll see whether Georgians have learned from history or are doomed to repeat it.

A candidate is more than his voting record or speeches on today’s issues. What’s most important is whether he’ll respond to tomorrow’s issues in a thoughtful and trustworthy way.