Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition wunderkind, has risen from the disgrace of the Jack Abramoff scandal and come to Washington this week to show he still has some political chops. His new Faith and Freedom Coalition hosted a conference and strategy briefing at the ritzy Mayflower Hotel, a sort of "grassroots 'NFL mini-camp,'" according to Reed. Big-name and old-time GOP luminaries dominated the first day of the event Friday: Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and of course, Reed himself. Saturday, though, the focus has turned a bit to the new wave of conservative politics: the tea party movement. And tea partiers, who've often shunned such establishment ties, actually showed up to speak to a full house of the religious-right faithful.
Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinators of the Tea Party Patriots, joined Anastasia Przybyiski, the co-chair of the Kitchen Table Patriots, to brief the group on what's up with the tea party, a movement that Reed seems keen on courting. Meckler and Martin seemed unlikely members of the Faith and Freedom club; Meckler has frequently told me that the tea party is not about social issues and that TPP specifically stays away from them because they are too divisive. TPP's mission statement is short and to the point in this regard, focusing solely on fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets. Yet after his introduction, when the panel moderator asked Meckler whether the tea party was just a bunch of angry white people, Meckler made a point of first emphasizing that not only were tea partiers angry, but they were angry specifically because of "this idea of separation of church and state. We're angry about the removal of God from the public square."
It was the sort of bone you'd expect a politician to throw to the devout Christian crowd—the foot soldiers of the old GOP any aspiring candidate needs to woo. But then again, Meckler these days has the look of someone contemplating a run for office. Not only has he been heading up significant fundraising efforts worthy of the RNC, but he's taken an increasingly public role in the tea party movement. I asked him after he spoke whether he or the Tea Party Patriots are going to be working with Reed's new project, but Meckler said he was simply in the room to talk. "We share values," he explained. When I questioned whether tea partiers were really first and foremost upset about the "removal of God from the public square," he said, "absolutely. If you talk to any rank and file tea party member and they'll say that they're worried about it." But if tea partiers' are so concerned about separation of church and state, how come Meckler's group doesn't ever talk about it? "We don't deal with those issues," he said. Rhetoric befitting an aspiring GOP candidate.