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Schiavo Politics, Up Close

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.

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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?

Conversations with a number of Democratic consultants and Hill staffers indicate several reasons behind the skittishness:
  • 1. Democrats are extremely nervous about anything to do with "moral values" in the aftermath of the 2004 election.
  • 2. As pollster Doug Schoen told the Washington Post, Democrats don't have a "worldview" on the right-to-die issue and felt very uncomfortable weighing in on such a highly charged emotional issue.
  • 3. Top Democrats were out of town (and, unlike the president, were happy to stay there) and were unable to have a thorough discussion about the up- and downsides of the issue.

    Two Democratic senators who have thought this through, Tom Harkin and Ron Wyden, took very different positions. Harkin, of Iowa, was a prime mover behind the Senate decision to join with the Republicans to urge federal judicial review. Harkin is close to the disability community, which worries about "right-to-die" issues, and Senate Democrats deferred to him on Schiavo. He forged the coalition with Republicans Frist, Santorum, Martinez and, according to two sources, had the support of former President Clinton for his actions. While Mr. Clinton apparently didn't talk to Harkin until after the vote, one source described Mr. Clinton as "egging him on."

    The former triangulator-in-chief has taken an interesting position on faith and values issues in the past. According to Newsweek, he urged John Kerry to consider supporting the gay marriage bans which were on the ballot last fall and he has generally urged Democrats not to get pigeonholed on the "immoral" side of the moral values debate.

    The other Democratic senator who was read-in on the issue was Ron Wyden of Oregon, whose state has a law allowing physician-assisted suicide. He objected to the initial Senate measure, which he believed could have impinged on Oregon's law, but withdrew his objection to the private, Schiavo-specific bill to let it go through unanimously without a vote.

    Those Democrats who did speak out were mostly liberals like Reps. Barney Frank and John Lewis, who voted against the bill, along with 51 other Democrats and five Republicans. In fact, they said Congress had no reason to be involved in this issue – which turned out to be completely in synch with the vast majority of Americans.

    Many Democrats now believe that this action will come back to bite the Republicans and the Bush brothers. One consultant told me that the Democratic passivity "enabled the Republicans to make fools of themselves on their own" without the Democrats' politicizing the debate. Others believe they now have an issue that will hurt the Republicans' ability to make the case on everything from judicial nominations to Social Security reform and health care funding.

    But Democratic consultant David Sirota has called the Democrats' capitulation a "missed opportunity." And other Democrats believe the silence may be more emblematic of their party's larger problem with voters; their failure to lay out a coherent worldview.

    Democratic pollster Diane Feldman wrote in a memo entitled "Winning" last January that the Democratic Party's problem with voters is an inability to articulate its principles and where it wants to take the country. By shying away from controversies like these they have lost opportunities to talk clearly about their core values.

    The recess will be over soon and this case may fade but the political fallout may have long-lasting impact.

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