I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Using Christian conservatives for fun and profit

Jane Hamsher zeros right in on an exchange of monumental importance which took place on Meet the Press yesterday, involving accusations of wrongdoing exchanged between close Bush ally Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, and top Bush campaign official Ralph Reed. In addition to sweeping some of the most prominent pro-Bush faces into the center of the Abramoff corruption net, this episode powerfully illustrates how the Republican Party has long exploited, with total cynicism and dishonesty, the Christian conservatives who constitutes such a critical and loyal part of its base. The significance of this part of the Abramoff scandal could be huge if used properly. For that reason, it’s worthwhile to review the basic facts.

As part of the federal investigation into Jack Abramoff, e-mails from 2001 surfaced which were written to Abramoff by Ralph Reed, longtime Republican operative and the Bush ‘04 campaign’s Southeast Regional Director. Abramoff at the time was working on behalf of casinos owned by Louisiana Indian tribes, which were concerned that Texas tribes were beginning to open casinos which would compete with them and drain away their gamblers. They wanted government action taken against the Texas casinos -- in sum, they wanted the Texas Government to shut down their competition -- and so they hired Abramoff to use his unparalleled influence with Republicans, especially Texas Republicans, in order to engineer the State Government action that they wanted.

In thinking about how to induce the Texas government to act against the Texas casinos, Abramoff realized that he could cynically exploit Christian conservatives in Texas -- who strongly oppose gambling on religious and moral grounds -- and use that religious opposition to gambling in order to help the Louisiana casinos who were paying him. The Christian conservatives both in Texas and nationally would be the dupes. They would think that they were crusading against gambling by demanding that the Texas casinos be shut down. In reality, the entire spectacle was a grand deceit which was about nothing other than working to serve the interests of the Louisiana casinos by attacking their competitors.

To implement this scheme, Abramoff turned to Ralph Reed, who has long been the most politically influential Christian conservative in the country. Ever since he left Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in 1997, Reed has been in the business of getting paid to influence Christian conservatives to do whatever serves the political and financial interests of his clients. Reed was also a top advisor to the Bush campaign in 2000 and its Southeast Regional Director in 2004. Abramoff hired Reed and paid him to drum up religious opposition to the Texas casinos in order to protect the Louisiana casinos.

Reed went to work and, when he was done, the targeted Texas casinos ended up being shut down as a result of a lawsuit brought against them in the name of Texas by then-Attorney General Jon Cornyn. Thereafter, Reed claimed in one of his e-mails to Abramoff that all of that happened because Reed had arranged for a meeting between anti-gambling Christian activists and Cornyn where the activists would demand that Cornyn act against the Texas casinos. In that e-mail, Reed advised Abramoff that he had "choreographed" Cornyn’s response – i.e., that Reed had ensured that Cornyn would respond by taking action against the targeted Texas casinos:

In the Nov. 30, 2001, e-mail, Reed told Abramoff that 50 pastors led by Ed Young of Second Baptist Church in Houston would meet with Cornyn to urge him to shut down the Alabama-Coushatta tribe's casino near Livingston. He said Young would back up the request in writing.

We have also choreographed Cornyn's response. The AG will state that the law is clear, talk about how much he wants to avoid repetition of El Paso and pledge to take swift action to enforce the law," Reed wrote. "He will also personally hand Ed Young a letter that commits him to take action in Livingston."

As a result of these revelations, the moralizing Cornyn now has an obvious problem. Ralph Reed claims that Cornyn took action against the Texas casinos because Reed, acting on behalf of his casino clients, influenced him to do so. Reed says he "choreographed" Cornyn’s response. In order to save himself, Cornyn has now turned on Reed with an unrestrained viciousness. When asked yesterday by Tim Russert about this e-mail, Cornyn accused Reed -- who, in addition to being a top Bush campaign official also happens to be seeking the GOP nomination as Lt. Governor of Georgia -- of lying and "bilking" his clients:

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Cornyn, your name surfaced as receiving $1,000 from associates of Jack Abramoff. And Ralph Reed, an associate of Mr. Abramoff, was quoted as saying that he helped "choreograph" a response for you when you were attorney general towards a tribal problem. Will you give that money back?

SEN. CORNYN: Tim, it was a legal contribution. I don’t plan on giving it back, which is—you know, to listen to Chuck and to try to have it both ways and say this is a partisan issue—you know, Jack Abramoff and the people, his clients, made bipartisan contributions and through—as long as they’re legal and appropriately reported, I don’t see any reason to give them back. On the Reed e-mail—and this is not Harry Reid, but...

SEN. SCHUMER: R-E-E-D of the—yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition.

SEN. CORNYN: Exactly. Those e-mails came out three years after I, as attorney general of Texas, filed an injunction to enforce Texas law against casino gambling. We prevailed because the law was in our favor, and then after the fact, apparently, there were these e-mails I had no knowledge of where Reed and Abramoff were somehow claiming credit and then bilking their Indian clients for millions of dollars, apparently. And I certainly disapprove of that, did not know anything about it.

It is truly amazing to see top Bush Republicans, who have marched in almost absolute lock-stop with one another for five years, turn on each other this way. And these are not fringe Republicans.

Ralph Reed built the Christian Coalition and solidified the attachment of Christian conservatives to the Republican Party -- an attachment which, as Digby amply documented just yesterday, has been and continues to be a critically important cog in the Republican electoral machine. As Reed himself always makes clear, and Karl Rove agrees, these ties are a huge part of what put George Bush in office and gave Congress to the Republicans. Reed has long been at the center of national Republican politics along with his creator and mentor, Pat Robertson.

And Cornyn is no less influential. No Senator is a more loyal ally to George Bush. He was hand-picked by Karl Rove for his Senate seat and his election was a top priority for the White House:

On the Republican side of the Texas Senate race, Texas State Attorney General John Cornyn is the conservative, well-funded Bush ally with close ties to the business community. . . . .

The Cornyn campaign can also count on as much help from the White House as it will need, noted NACS' Director of Political Affairs Dan Mulvaney. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have already ventured to Texas for Cornyn fundraisers. "Having a large war chest is a crucial in a state with 19 media markets," said Mulvaney. "Cornyn is likely to maintain a substantial financial edge, thanks to this White House involvement."

Cornyn is blindly loyal to George Bush, and he obviously recognizes the danger he is in from this scandal. Sean-Paul Kelly, who blogs from Southwest Texas and guest hosts a radio show there, has been aggressively documenting the connection of the Abramoff story to Cornyn for some time. His excellent coverage of Cornyn’s involvement in this scandal has prompted rather thugish threats from Cornyn’s office against Kelly's radio station. Bush followers understand quite well the threat this story poses, which is why Cornyn put a knife in Reed’s back on national television yesterday.

I heard Charles Krauthammer on Brit Hume’s show yesterday snidely dismissing the importance of the Abramoff scandal generally, saying that he would be "shocked" if anyone even remembered this whole silly thing come November. Bill Kristol, Hume, and the always-compliant Mara Liasson and Juan Williams basically chortled in agreement, depicting this as nothing more than one bad guy, Abramoff, taking advantage of a corrupt though perfectly legal political culture which entails this sort of clever game-playing equally by both parties. And all of the insider-sophisticates know it and accept it. According to Krauthammer, objecting to this filthy system is nothing more than tiresome populist "grandstanding."

But that pretense of indifference to this scandal is laughable. The Abramoff scandal generally implicates almost every significant Republican political operative, along with many of the party’s highest political officials. And Cornyn’s statement on Meet the Press by itself is a huge story. He just accused the Religious Right’s most important figure, who was also a top Bush campaign official, of lying and defrauding his clients. Other than to hardened Beltway tools like Krauthammer – who think that their acceptance of deeply entrenched corruption is a sign of their elevated sophistication -- how can that not be a huge story?

More importantly, this entire Abramoff-Reed-Cornyn scheme demonstrates the completely cynical exploitation of Christian conservatives by a Republican political machine which pretends to be devoted to their agenda, but which has long just used them as ATM machines and ballot box stuffers.

Isn’t it time that Bush opponents at least make the effort to explain to citizens who identify as Christians that the Republican Party is not really working in their interests at all? Long manipulated by the likes of Ralph Reed -- who has made an enormous amount of money selling religious voters to the highest bidder -- these religious conservatives now ignore the issues which truly affect their lives because they have become convinced that the Bush movement is devoted to their core religious issues. But it isn’t. It exploits their religious agenda for its own sake while offering them only symbolic gestures and, as this Reed-Cornyn episode shows, it often works directly and secretly against their agenda.

Shaking loose the unwarranted devotion of religious conservatives to a Bush movement that couldn’t care less about their agenda is long past due. Howard Dean tried to make this point during the primary campaign - that religious conservatives are being manipulated into supporting a party that works against their interests - but the media and Dean’s opponents turned that effort into some stupid sideshow about Dean's supposedly offensive reference to "pick-up trucks" and Confederate flags and the issue faded away in a cloud of idiotic rancor. Subsequent efforts by Dean were met with ridicule, including from those in his own party. But the corrupt, secret work of Ralph Reed, John Cornyn and others to serve their Indian gaming masters while pretending to oppose gambling on moral grounds is the ideal tool to re-engage in that project.

So, too, incidentally, is the NSA scandal and the unlimited federal powers claimed by Bush. Religious conservatives have long been distrustful of federal power, which is what accounts for the discomfort which so many of them have with Bush’s lawless eavesdropping. It is what accounts for the notable opposition of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who is a True Believer and whose opposition to Bush on this issue should come as no surprise. His political positions are almost always driven by, from beginning to end, his religious agenda. If he takes a strong position, it is due to his religious-based viewpoints.

That is what explains his rather aggressive stance against Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program specifically and the powers of lawlessness claimed by the Administration generally. There has always been a strong "leave-me-alone" current running through religious conservatives in this country because they have always viewed a powerful Federal Government as a potential source of interference with their religious practices.

Much of the not insubstantial populist Christian anger over the Ruby Ridge and David Koresh attacks originated with this viewpoint, and while it has been precariously managed under Bush, it has not gone away. Emphasizing how much this Administration has expanded the powers of federal government - including its law enforcement domestic powers – is an independently potent tool for sowing real distrust and doubt among religious conservatives in George Bush’s Republican Party.

For some reason, Bush opponents cede so much to the Bush movement even though there is no reason to do so. There are lots of extremely compelling reasons why groups such as true Goldwater libertarian/conservatives and even religious conservatives should be alienated by George Bush and his followers. But these alliances are almost never challenged and Bush’s strategists are thus given free reign to solidify those allegiances at no cost.

What is ceded more than just these alliances are the basic rhetorical premises that Republicans have used to manipulate their supporters. When Republicans depict themselves as the party of resolute strength, Democrats try to say that they are kind of strong, too. When Republicans depict themselves as the party of religion and morality, Democrats try to say that they are sort of moral and religious, too. But there is no need to cede that ground to Republicans, especially Bush Republicans, because they are so plainly neither strong nor moral, at all. And nothing illustrates that better than the blatant manipulation of religious conservatives for profit and gain.

It is well past time to start articulating not just to liberals or liberal-leaners, but to those who have been supporting Bush as well, that the actions of his Administration and his followers do not advance their interests. They are not devoted to the ideals of small government conservatives or to religious conservatives. Quite the contrary. This Abramoff scandal, as well as the lawless expansion of the powers of the Federal Government, together offer the perfect opportunity for making this long overdue case.

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