Sunday, October 16, 2005

Economic vs. Social Conservatives

Jonathan Chait has a good piece in TNR on why social conservatives seems to always get the short end of the stick vis-a-vis economic conservatives within the GOP. According to Chait (italics mine):

Surely the answer has something to do with the fact that the religious right's political vanguard is complicit in its own subordination. For years, economic conservatives have learned that they can enlist social conservative groups to back their agenda on the flimsiest of pretexts. When business groups were fighting fuel economy standards, GOP activist Grover Norquist convinced Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum to oppose them as well, according to a 1995 Washington Post story, "because the mileage goals could be portrayed as threatening such mainstays of the family as the station wagon and the mini-van." According to its website, the top two legislative items on the Christian Coalition's legislative agenda are "Passing President Bush's Social Security reform" and "Making permanent President Bush's 2001 federal tax cuts."

Probably the most comic example of how Republicans use social conservatives came out of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff, you'll recall, is a GOP lobbyist who represented Indian casinos. At one point, he was hired to help shut down a rival casino. Ingeniously, he hired former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed, who in turn recruited Focus on the Family Chairman James Dobson to go on the radio and incite his followers to register their opposition to legalized gambling. The episode shows how GOP leaders view social conservative organizations as "rent-a-mobs" that can be manipulated into nearly any cause.

Actually, Chait is wrong that social conservative leaders get enlisted "on the flimiest of pretexts." A story in today's Washington Post shows that they get enlisted for a great reason--they get paid to do so. When GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff wanted to kill an anti-gambling bill at the behest of his client eLottery:

Abramoff quietly arranged for eLottery to pay conservative, anti-gambling activists to help in the firm's $2 million pro-gambling campaign, including Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Both kept in close contact with Abramoff about the arrangement, e-mails show. Abramoff also turned to prominent anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist, arranging to route some of eLottery's money for Reed through Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform.

According to the Post, here's how the transaction went down:

To reach the House conservatives, Abramoff turned to Sheldon, leader of the Orange County, Calif. - based Traditional Values Coalition, a politically potent group that publicly opposed gambling and said it represented 43,000 churches. Abramoff had teamed up with Sheldon before on issues affecting his clients. Because of their previous success, Abramoff called Sheldon "Lucky Louie," former associates said.

Checks and e-mails obtained by The Post show that Abramoff recruited Reed to join Sheldon in the effort to pressure members of Congress. Reed had left the Christian Coalition in 1997 and started a political consulting firm in Georgia.

Abramoff asked eLottery to write a check in June 2000 to Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition (TVC). He also routed eLottery money to a Reed company, using two intermediaries, which had the effect of obscuring the source.

The eLottery money went first to Norquist's foundation, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), and then through a second group in Virginia Beach called the Faith and Family Alliance, before it reached Reed's company, Century Strategies. Norquist's group retained a share of the money as it passed through.

"I have 3 checks from elot: (1) 2 checks for $80K payable to ATR and (2) 1 check to TVC for $25K," Abramoff's assistant Susan Ralston e-mailed him on June 22, 2000. "Let me know exactly what to do next. Send to Grover? Send to Rev. Lou?"

Minutes later Abramoff responded, saying that the check for Sheldon's group should be sent directly to Sheldon, but that the checks for Norquist required special instructions: "Call Grover, tell him I am in Michigan and that I have two checks for him totaling 160 and need a check back for Faith and Family for $150K."

According to the e-mails, Reed provided the name and address where Norquist was supposed to send the money: to Robin Vanderwall at a location in Virginia Beach.

Vanderwall was director of the Faith and Family Alliance, a political advocacy group that was founded by two of Reed's colleagues and then turned over to Vanderwall, Vanderwall said and records show.

Vanderwall, a former Regent University Law School student and Republican operative, was later convicted of soliciting sex with minors via the Internet and is serving a seven-year term in Virginia state prison.

In a telephone interview, Vanderwall said that in July 2000 he was called by Reed's firm, Century Strategies, alerting him that he would be receiving a package. When it came, it contained a check payable to Vanderwall's group for $150,000 from Americans for Tax Reform, signed by Norquist. Vanderwall said he followed the instructions from Reed's firm -- depositing the money and then writing a check to Reed's firm for an identical amount.

"I was operating as a shell," Vanderwall said, adding that he was never told how the money was spent. He said: "I regret having had anything to do with it."

Abramoff had previously paid Reed's consulting firms to whip up Christian opposition to Indian casinos and a proposed Alabama state lottery that would compete with the gambling business of Abramoff's tribal clients, sometimes using Norquist's foundation as a pass-through, a Senate investigation has found.

A spokeswoman for Reed said Century Strategies had no business relationship with eLottery. She said Reed did anti-gambling work for Abramoff but was assured by Abramoff's firm "that our activities would not be funded by revenues derived from gambling activities."

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