Schiavo Politics, Up Close

Terri Schiavo, brain-damaged woman in a coma-like state following a heart attack, over US Capitol dome, on texture, partial graphic
Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

Until last week the Terri Schiavo case was mainly one of personal and legal interest. For the past seven years the case has been in the courts and the major political aspect came from the zeal of the pro-life community in fighting to keep Schiavo nourished. There was some political activity over this in Florida, but overnight the case went from a wrenching personal story to a national political blockbuster.

While both Republicans and Democrats claim they acted purely out of principle, 74 percent of Americans believe the president and the Congress were motivated by politics rather than concern for Schiavo, according to a CBS News poll. The decision by federal officials to get involved raises a number of very puzzling political questions.

I kept thinking that maybe it was because I was on vacation last week that I didn't catch the political logic of why the Congress decided suddenly to hold a weekend midnight session to deal with the Schiavo case. Watching the spectacle from 2,000 miles away, it seemed that Washington had spun out of control. What was going through the minds of President Bush's advisers, who won't even let him address the annual Right-to-Life march in Washington in person, when he decided to fly back from Crawford to insert himself into this case in the most high-profile, dramatic way?

A lot of attention has been paid to the Republican calculus but equally puzzling was the way the Democrats handled things. Democratic leaders know that audiences stand up and cheer when they say that the government has no right monkeying around in people's private lives. For a group of folks who live and die by the polls, it seemed an easy call that Democratic officials would proclaim this to be a personal matter and bash Tom Delay, their favorite whipping boy, for politicizing the tragedy.

Polling done on this case in 2003 by Fox showed substantial public support for removing Schiavo's feeding tube. On Monday, ABC released a poll showing that 70 percent of Americans believed Congressional and White House involvement were inappropriate; and by midweek, a CBS poll found 82 percent believed they should stay out of the matter.

The Schiavo case appeared to be a clear attempt by the Republicans to play to their conservative base. So why were the Democrats so afraid to jump on them for inserting politics into this issue?