Monday, March 21, 2005

The Politics of the Schiavo Case

If you have a blog on American politics, I suppose you have something of an obligation to address a story as extraordinary as the Schiavo case. It's tempting to point out the apparent hypocrisies in the Republican position - that a states' rights, sanctity of marriage party is willing to use the federal government to interfere with a decision by a husband about his wife.

To be fair, conservatives would say that the right to life is a principle that overrides their dedication to other values. But that simply highlights the inconsistencies in their supposed commitment to a "culture of life." It is unimaginable, for example, that a Republican-lead Congress would intervene on behalf of a death row inmate who is likely to be innocent. And the defense of life, of course, is not the same as a commitment to quality of life. If life is so important, why not provide health care coverage to all?

There are plenty of other questions to be raised about Republican behavior in this case. Does it violate the separation of powers? Isn't this contrary to a view of limited government that Republicans supposedly embrace; where is this particular congressional power enumerated in the Constitution? Is the precedent this creates - the federal government stepping into specific, unique cases - an acceptable one?

Of more relevance to this blog, though, are the politics of the case. Clearly, Republicans see a benefit in placating the most important part of their base, namely, conservative evangelicals. As the Washington Post reported Saturday, a GOP memo circulated among Senate Republicans in which "the Schiavo case was characterized as 'a great political issue' that could pay dividends with Christian conservatives, whose support is essential in midterm elections such as those coming up in 2006." It also

singled out Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.

"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," said the memo, which was reported by ABC News and later given to The Washington Post. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."

As The Note points out today, Christian conservatives have been lobbying Congress for a while to do something in the Schiavo case. The truth is, congressional Republicans probably HAD to act.

But there's a significant risk as well. The libertarian streak within the American public may very well be activated by this heavy-handed move. In fact, public opinion is clearly opposed to the Republican position. Gary Langer's analysis of an ABC News poll today finds that
Americans broadly and strongly disapprove of federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, with sizable majorities saying Congress is overstepping its bounds for political gain.

The public, by 63 percent-28 percent, supports the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, and by a 25-point margin opposes a law mandating federal review of her case. Congress passed such legislation and President Bush signed it early today.

That legislative action is distinctly unpopular: Not only do 60 percent oppose it, more — 70 percent — call it inappropriate for Congress to get involved in this way. And by a lopsided 67 percent-19 percent, most think the elected officials trying to keep Schiavo alive are doing so more for political advantage than out of concern for her or for the principles involved.

The poll shows that even conservatives and evangelicals oppose congressional action (57% and 50% respectively) and both groups support removal of the feeding tube (though evangelicals are split on the subject, 46% for removal, 44% opposed to it).

The political consequences of this may be similar to the Clinton impeachment. Republicans moved forward with that despite opposition from the public at large because in the conservative districts of their leadership, that position was popular. Here, the leadership is being encouraged by the socially conservative interest groups it communicates with, but they're missing the bigger picture.

Many Democrats are likely feeling pressure to appear morally sensitive to this situation. But the American people value living a dignified life that requires more than being technically 'alive.' They want a quality life for themselves and their loved ones. (That's why roughly 80% would prefer to have the feeding tube removed were they in Ms. Schiavo's condition.) Furthermore, in cases like this, the people prefer to let a private matter remain private (only to be adjudicated in courts, if it comes to that). As a result, the Democrats shouldn't exploit the issue; the Republicans' misstep speaks for itself.


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