Ralph Reed: A Window Into the Bush Presidency

ATLANTA — Ralph Reed served as executive director of the Christian Coalition from its inception in 1989 until 1997, and in that capacity played a key role in delivering control of Congress to the Republican Party in 1994. Today, he is the head of Atlanta-based Century Strategies, a political consulting group that worked with the Bush presidential campaign, and is serving as an informal adviser to the president. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Mary Claire Kendall.

Kendall: How would you rate the first days of the Bush presidency?

Reed: Well, I think the president is off to a terrific start. He began by focusing on education, which had been the centerpiece of his successful governorship in Texas and served as the centerpiece of his campaign for president.

I think it was natural for him to begin with education. It is the opportunity for the greatest amount of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill.

And, I think more to the point, the president has demonstrated to Washington, as he did before that on the campaign trail and in Austin, that he is an enormously charming and likeable man. I think over time you're going to find people on both sides of the aisle saying about George W. Bush as they once said of Ronald Reagan: “I may not agree with him on every issue but I found it impossible to dislike him.”

This week is the rollout of the faith-based initiative, and liberal interest groups are promising a big fight to defeat it. Could you describe the president's vision?

The vision is simply that we should place the emphasis of the success of our programs to address substance abuse, youth violence and teen pregnancy not by how much money we spend, but how successful we are at reducing those social pathologies.

And we know both from anecdotal evidence at the grassroots and also from a growing body of social scientific data that faith-based charities, churches, synagogues and other organizations that put faith at the center of their activities are among the most successful and effective at helping those in need.

So this is not a new concept. What is new is the federal government recognizing it and shifting policy so that faith-based organizations not only are not discriminated against in grants toward such programs but that in fact they play a very important and central role.

You have spoken about the wisdom of marrying economic and social-issue interests. Which of President Bush's policy goals and initiatives best integrate these two interests?

Well, one of them we've just talked about, which is taking welfare reform to the next level through a greater emphasis on faith.

Economic conservatives have generally been against traditional welfare programs because they were both costly and bureaucratic and therefore failed. Social conservatives have been against traditional welfare because they believed they sought bureaucratic and secular solutions to what were, at root, human and spiritual problems. So this is something that unites economic and social conservatives.

Another good example is tax reduction, where in addition to lowering income tax rates, President Bush's proposals to phase out the death tax and to reduce the marriage penalty appeal equally to moral and economic conservatives. And I think you're going to see a lot of that during President Bush's Administration.

What are President Bush's policy goals to foster a “culture of life,” Pope John Paul II's signature phrase, to which he referred during the presidential debates?

There are a combination of things. Number one, he has talked about the need to create a culture of life by elevating those organizations and individuals, and shining a light on their good work, who are seeking to protect and value life. I think you can expect to see the president continue to talk about the great work that those organizations do.

During the campaign he visited crisis pregnancy centers and homes for unwed mothers, and I would expect that to continue.

Secondly, in the area of common-sense restrictions on abortion, such as he recently adopted in reaffirming the Mexico City policy of the Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush administrations which had been countermanded by a Clinton executive order, I expect to see passed certainly before the August recess the ban on partial-birth abortion. And I expect that to be signed by President Bush.

Finally, I think the rhetorical function of the presidency, what Teddy Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit,” is important here.

You will often see President Bush leaven his public remarks with quotes from John Paul II or Mother Teresa or other religious figures who have talked about the importance of valuing every single human life, and recognizing that no human being is insignificant in God's eyes.

I think that matters. I think language matters — it can be used as a force for hurt or it can be used as a force of healing.

What is President Bush's thinking about what government can and can't do to build, as John Paul II calls it, a “civilization of love?

Number one, he is someone who, as a Baby Boomer, has seen that attempts — most of them with very noble intentions — at utopian government programs to usher in a society without poverty and without violence have failed.

And the reason why is because we've put our trust in secular and bureaucratic solutions to problems that really need the healing touch of faith and need to be solved at the community level — neighbor by neighbor, block by block.

So what I think you're going to see is President Bush emphasizing those areas where government does have a role and has traditionally played an important part — education and health care are examples.

But in other areas such as alleviating poverty, creating jobs and renewing communities, I think he believes that is primarily the function of a civil society in which, as he said in his Inaugural address, we are all citizens and not merely spectators.

This is a unique opportunity, in which a new president, ushering in a new era, has issued a pretty forthright challenge to the citizens of this country — probably the boldest challenge since John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.”

President Bush has said that what we do is as important, and often more important, than the things that a president does or a member of Congress does in solving some of these deep-seated social problems.

That's quite a challenge and I am hopeful and optimistic that the faith community will rise to that challenge and break out beyond what others have called “a stain-glassed ghetto” to be full participants in our civic life.

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