Friday, August 22, 2008
Spoiler Alert: When the McCain campaign floated the idea of a pro-choice running mate, social conservatives reacted with the same outrage they've been rehearsing for 40 years: Some threatened to bolt at the convention; others said they'd rather lose the election than expand the Republican tent. "If he picks a pro-choice running mate, it's not going to be pretty," Rush Limbaugh warned.
But the most explosive threat comes from former right-hand-of-God Ralph Reed, in his new novel, Dark Horse, a "political thriller" that imagines this very scenario. Spoiler alert! Just hours after forcing his party to swallow a pro-choice VP, the Republican presidential nominee in Reed's pot-boiler is brutally murdered by radical Islamic terrorists at the GOP Convention. Reed's implicit threat to Republican candidates: The Christian right has so much power, they can even get someone else's God to strike you down.
Reed doesn't just kill off the character who named a pro-choice running mate—he has the running mate go on to destroy the Republican Party. For the Republicans (and the reader), the plot goes from bad to worse. With the pro-choice figure—an African-American war hero named David Petty—now at the top of the Republican ticket, evangelical leaders throw their support behind Calif. Gov. Bob Long, who just lost the Democratic nomination at a brokered convention and decided to run as an independent after going through a religious conversion in the chapel of the hospital where his daughter nearly lost her baby. Petty offends evangelicals, while Long—obviously a quick study—wows them with the depth of his knowledge of the Bible.
Petty's candidacy implodes when a YouTube clip shows him telling Iowans that his support for the GOP abortion plank is only symbolic. Days before the election, voters also learn that as defense secretary, Petty convinced a no-bid contractor to hire a lobbyist who moonlights as his mistress and madam of an exclusive Washington brothel.
Reed's clear warning: If you put a pro-choice Republican on the ticket, don't be surprised when he turns out to be a lying, cheating, no-bid-earmarking john.
By contrast, Reed's evangelicals love Long, who woos them with parables and waffles on abortion. "I've heard through the grapevine that he's become a Christian," says televangelist Andy Stanton, a composite of Limbaugh and Pat Robertson. "He may be someone we can do business with." With Stanton's enthusiastic blessing, Long sweeps the South and beats Petty 2-to-1 among evangelicals.
All three candidates come up short of 270 electoral votes, so the election goes to the House of Representatives. Even though Republicans control the House, Petty loses when Republican members of the evangelical caucus support Long instead. The message to McCain: Social conservatives will gladly support a maverick, as long as he says what they want to hear on their issues.
Of course, John McCain doesn't need to curl up with a Ralph Reed roman à clef to know that social conservatives won't budge on abortion. The more interesting question is why my evil twin decided to write the Great Republican Novel in the first place. True to his own life story, the book suffers from too much plot and not enough character. But it's not nearly as bad as I'd hoped, and it's chock-full of accidental revelations:
- Ralph expects the Republicans to lose the White House in 2008 but win it back in 2012 and 2016. By the time the book takes place, Democrats haven't carried a single Southern state in five straight elections (2000 through 2016), and a Republican president who is retiring after two terms reminisces fondly about how "I did what I had to do" to win the 2012 election. Alas, his "botched effort to overthrow the Iranian government" inspires the terrorist attack on the 2020 GOP convention.
- Much as social conservatives and neocons can't stand liberals and the media, most of all they hate each other. Reed's hapless Republican nominee insists that "this election is about terrorism, not social issues" and doesn't hide his contempt for social conservative leaders and "their self-importance, single-issue litmus tests, and insufferable sense of entitlement." Meanwhile, social conservatives view themselves as "abused spouses" trapped in a "self-destructive codependence" with "the spineless wonders" who run the Republican Party. Reed says the Reagan formula can't save the GOP anymore: "A pro-business party with the religious right grafted in like a wild olive plant, it no longer appeals to the center of the country."
- Money-grubbing consultants are obsessed with alcohol, drugs, and sex. Long's adman is arrested for snorting cocaine, and his top strategist nearly costs his candidate the election by shacking up with a spy from a rival campaign.
- Novel-writing operatives, by contrast, are obsessed only with sex. Reed tries his best to turn social conservative politics into steamy beach reading. In Dark Horse, the operative always gets the girl, and she is invariably "bronzed," with swaying hips and tight designer clothes. One femme fatale is "a brunette lollipop" who captures her prey with lines like, "I thought I was dessert."
- Apparently, Reed does not have much experience courting the women's vote. Long's wife is an alcoholic who's upset that he found God. The Democratic VP candidate is a lightweight who can't remember her party's position on Iran. Two campaign operatives refuse to discuss their grand jury testimony but stop to answer press questions about the designer outfits they're wearing.
- Reed enjoyed running the Christian Coalition more than humping corporate accounts for Jack Abramoff. He writes himself into the book as a minor character named Ross Lombardy, "a veritable computer hard drive of political trivia" and "strategist-cum-organizer with a killer instinct who could quote 200 Bible verses from memory" and "had an uncanny ability to cite the precise vote percentages in every key U.S. House and Senate race in the previous three election cycles." The Abramoff character, G.G. Hoterman, is a corrupt, ruthless multimillionaire lobbyist who crushes anyone who gets in his way. "Politics has a way of criminalizing the normative," Hoterman complains.
- Reed writes knowingly of the "time-honored Washington tradition" of "expressing false regret at the misfortune of someone caught in a scandal, when the truth was everyone enjoyed it." With a twinge of bitterness, he adds that "Washington scandals burn like funeral pyres, and only go out after the angry mob has tossed someone to the flames to pacify the gods.