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Talking Points Live

Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent
Friday, March 25, 2005; 11:00 AM

washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal took your questions and comments on politics, politicians and his latest columns.

This week's columns and video:
If You Ain't Broke, Congress Has Fixed It (March 22)
Political Expediency Abounds in Schiavo Case, (March 23)
Political Players: Columnist Michelle Malkin (Video)

Terry Neal (post.com)

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The transcript follows

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Terry Neal: Good morning everyone. Welcome back to my regular weekly chat. I'm looking forward to taking your questions, so fire away.

Terry

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Rochester, N.Y.: As a Democrat I have to say that as disturbing as Congress' intrusion into the Terri Shiavo case has been, my disgust with the cowardice of the Democratic "leadership" (obviously using that term loosely) has been even more appalling. Is there likely to be any long term change or fallout from this case, or will it merely fade away after Terri's death?

Terry Neal: Thanks for your question, and I wrote about this subject in my column on Wednesday. It's difficult to say what the political fall out will be on this subject. The mid-term elections are still, what 20 months away? Given the public's short attention span for issues these days, the Schiavo case may be long forgotten by then. Certainly, there will be a ton of other divisive issues before the next round of elections.
Nonetheless, yes, I do believe there is a political danger for the Democrats, who just don't seem to be able to coalesce around anything these days, with the exception of Social Security. I mean, the party failed to stand up not only in the Schiavo case, but failed to provide any reasonable opposition at all to the bankruptcy and class-action lawsuit bills, which ultimately could effect hundreds of thousands of people a year.

In my column, I quoted Democratic strategist David Sirota saying that the Schiavo case creates three impressions. "Firstly, Republicans are zealots," he said. "Secondly, where the hell are the Democrats? And thirdly, well, at least the zealots believe in something strongly. And that's the problem for Democrats right now on this issue, and a whole host of others. The party seems unwilling to stand up for anything controversial."

"The calculus by Democrats is that they don't want to offend anyone," Sirota said. "But in trying not to offend anyone, they lose support from everyone. What many Democrats haven't yet learned from Republicans is that it is better to be loved by some, and hated by others, than try to be liked by everyone. Because when you do that, you are liked by no one."

I think that pretty much sums it up.

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Arlington, Va.: In Wednesday's column you mentioned cases where the Bush Administration went against the wishes of states. One of your examples was the re-naming of National Airport. Congress changed that name during the Clinton Administration.

Terry Neal: True. True. But the point is, it was a part of a campaign by conservatives and the GOP Congress over the objection of many of the residents of the Washington metro region, which is not exactly a bastion of conservatism.
In any case, I was not saying that Terry Neal personally opposed the renaming of the airport. My point was that it was inconsistent with the local and state rights mantra of conservatives. Ultimately, both parties are guilty of abandoning their political principles when it's politically expedient to do so. That's what my Wednesday column was about.

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Odenton, Md.: I continually hear the press beating up on Democrats for being silent on this. I for one, think this is a good thing. I think the media want them to get into this insane debate that should be a private affair just so they can be bashed for not being "on the side of life". What do you think?

Terry Neal: I've heard that argument. I can't argue that it would have been a slam dunk (apologies to George Tenet for stealing his term...) for Democrats to get involved. But the bigger point is, after Republicans put it on the agenda, it became an issue. And I think people want to know where their elected officials stand. They want to know they believe in something.

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Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: David Broder in todays op ed seems pretty exercized by the behaviour of Republicans in Congress and the administration. At the same time, a lot of coverage has emphasized how spineless the Democrats have been. Do you get the sense that the Shaivo thing is shaking down to look bad for everyone, or is Broder's argument that the conservatives have done something very bad to themselves beginning to take hold? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Breach of Principle (Post, March 25)

Terry Neal: I haven't had a chance to read David's column yet. But I actually argued two days ago that the Schiavo case isn't good for either party.
"Republicans face political risk in the actions they took in the Terri Schiavo case. For Democrats, the risk is in the action they didn't take," I wrote.
I do think Republicans will be more directly hurt by this. There are some new polls showing Bush's approval rating dropping, and the Congress's rating dropping to it's lowest point in the last 10 years. Republicans run Congress, so that is a direct indictment of the GOP.
I think Democrats are hurt in a more complicated way...Now whether the following may or may not be true, but the bottom line is it APPEARS to be true to many people: Democrats sat around trying to assess the political winds, picking the brains of their consultants, and ultimately decided to stay out of Schiavo because it was a good thing to do politically. In this particular case, Democrats appeared to be so concerned about not offending a constituency that will never vote for them in the first place, that they failed to recognize that the vast majority of the greater public was on their side in the first place.
What happened to standing up for something you believe in, making a case, trying to sway public opinion in your direction, and letting the chips fall where they may?

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Chantilly, Va.: Terry: Am having a full physical Monday. If I tape it and mail the video to Senator Frist, will he give me a second opinion?

Terry Neal: Funny.
But you do raise a serious point. Those who oppose pulling Terri Schiavo's feeding tube argue that there are different opinions in the medical community. Frist has offered his diagnosis--from his office in Washington!
Schiavo's doctors, the people responsible for her care, just happen to have a different opinion.

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Staunton, Va.: An MSNBC video on washingtonpost.com this week has you talking about the political ramifications in the Schiavo case. In it you say that Republicans embrace state's rights, limited government, sanctity of marriage and are against judicial activisim but show a "willingness to deviate" on certain moral matters or state and local law issues.

I found yours a rather...mild assessment.

"Willingness to deviate?"

Can you explain why you are analyzing actions that display pretty fantastic contradictions against the GOPs espoused core "principles" and an apparent hypocrisy on issues of morality (juxtaposing one dramatic Schiavo against broad Medicaid cuts) as merely "willing to deviate?" You had tougher words for Democrats in their apparent lack of mooring. The Democrats do have that problem. But do you regard a party that's all over the map but shouting it boldly as deserving only tepid observation and critical analysis?

From out here it looks like another pass for the GOP from the MSM no matter what they pull.

Terry Neal: You can quibble with my words if you like, but my feelings on the subject is clear. Republicans have not been ideologically consistent. I said the same thing, perhaps more forcefully in my column on Wednesday. You should check that out.

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Washington, D.C.: Simple question: if the polls out now had been out last week, would the Republicans still have passed the Schiavo bill?

Terry Neal: That's a good question. A very good question.
Look, I think the Republicans always suspected that they were appealing to a minority opinion. But they believed the right-to-life people, even if a minority, were more passionate about this than the majority who supported removal of the feeding tube.
I think the most surprising thing about the polls is not that 2/3 of people support removal of the feeding tube, but how strongly those people feel about the issue. As I pointed out in my column, the people who oppose the GOP action have stronger feelings on the subject than those who support them.
I think the real question is, would they have done the same thing had they known that.

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Washington, D.C.: I wasn't surprised at the Democrats' lack of strong opposition to the bill last week that sent the Schiavo case to federal court, as milquetoast has more or less been their default position for a while now. But a week later, it's evident that the GOP's plan failed miserably and has drawn strong negative reaction from most Americans, including conservatives and Christians. And yet the Democrats are still no where to be seen on this issue. Are they afraid it'll look hypocritical to now oppose a bill they voted for last week, or do they just think the Republicans are doing enough damage to themselves without their help?

Terry Neal: My guess is probably the latter. But I also think it's a little too obvious to come back firing now at this point, after putting up no resistance when they had the opportunity to do so.

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Nicholasville, Ky.: Democrats and liberals have come out strongly in favor of Federal Courts not intervening in Florida's handling of the Schiavo case. Those groups have argued, that state law should be respected in personal matters involving life and death, and the federal courts should not intervene. Mainstrem media polls show that the majority of the population shares the same ideals.

Therefore, I now expect those same groups to support overturning the decision in Roe v. Wade. As you know, Roe, is a federal court telling states they have no right to make laws respecting a personal decision involving life and death.

Do you think that the Democrats and liberals will be consistent or hypocritical on Roe v. Wade in light of their pronouncements in the Schiavo case?

Terry Neal: Your question includes a number of false assumptions. First of all, you are wrong to suggest that "Democrats and liberals have come out strongly in favor of Federal Courts not intervening in Florida's handling of the Schiavo case."
They've done no such thing. At least not in Congress. On the Senate side, Democrats allowed the Schiavo bill to pass on the unanimous consent calendar, making no effort to oppose it.
On the House side, the Democrat vote was, I believe, 49 for and 53 against the Schiavo bill--so almost evenly split. (Of course, another 100 or so Democrats didn't show up for the vote at all.)
Secondly, I don't believe that most Democrats who have spoken out against the bill have used the states right justification. What they've done is accuse the GOP of deviating from its state rights position. I think most Democrats and liberals are arguing that it is a family decision.
Now I'm not saying that there is not one Democrat/liberal anywhere in the United States who used the states rights argument. I just don't think most have.
But as I do every week, I thank you for your interesting question and for being a loyal participant in my weekly chat.

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Austin, Tex.: As a lifelong Democrat and an admitted Bush hater I find myself truly disgusted with the Dems. You're right in saying that they don't stand for anything. Do you thing that with Gov. Dean as chairman the Democratic Party may at long last grow some "guts" and start dishing out what the Republicans have been doing for years? I'm getting concerned that Dean's lost his "will".

Terry Neal: That's an interesting question. Dean has suggested that he is going to focus on raising money, energizing activists, grassroots organizing and that sort of thing, and leave most of the policy debate to the party's congressional leaders.
You certainly haven't heard much from him on this Schiavo case.
I think this is the way Congressional leaders, and the DLC folks want it to be.

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Washington, D.C.: Terry, why did you have that hate-mongering, ignoramus known as Michelle Malkin on your web program? Couldn't you find someone who acutally contributes something real to the political dialogue in this country to appear? For shame.

Terry Neal: I interviewed Malkin for my Yahoo Political Players series. (You can link to it from Yahoo News or the washingtonpost.com homepage today.) I realize that she is a controversial character, but the purpose of Political Players is to talk to notable elected officials, media personalities, activists, and others of note in national politics.

Malkin is a prominent conservative and her column runs in some 200 newspapers and her blog is very popular and she's on TV all of the time representing a certain perspective, so from my standpoint, that made her a logical choice as a guest.

I also wanted to talk to her about her charge of media bias in the Schiavo story. It is my belief that such charges often come from the most ideological people (on both the right and the left). Often these critics are guilty of cherry picking facts conveniently to build a case. That case often falls apart upon closer inspection.

In her most recent column, Malkin argued basically that a cabal of baddies in the media sat down together and conspired to mislead the public about Schiavo to achieve a calculated end: Her death.

Malkin argued that this conspiracy began when ABC wrote the questions for a poll about the Schiavo case. This is what Malkin wrote:

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"However you feel about the Terri Schiavo case, one fact is indisputable: The mainstream media coverage of the matter has been abysmal.
On a fundamental matter of life and death, the MSM heavyweights have proven themselves utterly incapable of reporting fairly. Take a widely publicized ABC News poll released on Monday that supposedly showed strong public opposition to any Washington intervention in Terri's case. Here is how the spinmasters framed the main poll question:
As you may know, a woman in Florida named Terri Schiavo suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 15 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible. Her parents and her husband disagree on whether or not she should be kept on life support. In cases like this who do you think should have final say, (the parents) or (the spouse)?
A follow-up question asked:
If you were in this condition, would you want to be kept alive, or not?
The problem is that, contrary to what ABC News told those polled, Terri Schiavo is not on "life support" and has never been on "life support." The loaded phrase evokes images of a comatose patient being artificially sustained by myriad machines and pumps and wires. Terri was on a feeding tube. A feeding tube is not a ventilator. Terri can breathe just fine on her own."

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Now here's the problem with Malkin's report: Any person who read this would assume that ABC purposefully created the impression that Schiavo was on a ventilator rather than a feeding tube.

I have two reactions to that: First, her feeding tube is her life support. As Schiavo's doctors have said, "she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible." Thus, if you remove that tube, she dies. That's the entire point. The feeding tube is supporting her life, and has for the last 15 years.

The more important point, however, is that Malkin completely left out the fact that the ABC poll absolutely did frame the question as one about removal of a feeding tube.

To make her point about media bias, Malkin truncated the ABC poll question, making no mention of the fact that it ended with these words:

"What's your opinion on this case - do you support or oppose the decision to remove Schiavo's feeding tube? Do you support/oppose it strongly or somewhat?"

If I read her column and didn't know that, I'd be outraged too!

The fact is, 63 percent of respondents answered yes, they do support removal of the FEEDING TUBE. The results of the CBS News poll, taken a couple days later, validates the ABC News poll, in that garnered similar results without using the term "life support."

So sorry about the long answer, but I wanted to make my point.

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Burke, Va.: Dean has said something on this -- you guys just havn't reported it.

"By TOM HUMPHREY, Knoxville News Sentinel
March 22, 2005

NASHVILLE - Howard Dean, who today makes his first trip to Tennessee as the Democratic National Committee chief, criticized Republicans in general Monday - and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in particular - for grandstanding on the Terri Schiavo case.

"This is a deeply personal matter and ought to be left up to physicians," Dean said in a telephone conference call with Tennessee reporters.

"For Sen. Frist to say he could make a diagnosis based on a videotape is certainly not medically sound," said Dean, who, like Frist, is a physician-politician. "I wouldn't want my doctor making any diagnosis of me on videotape."
"

Terry Neal: Thank you for passing that along. I didn't say earlier that Dean had said nothing. He has weighed in, but I don't think he's gone out of the way to make this a major fight. In any case, you're right, to be fair, we should report what he has said.

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Terry Neal: All right folks, I've got to run. It's been a real pleasure, as always. Have a safe holiday weekend, and if you don't celebrate the holiday, still, have a safe, happy, joyous, peaceful weekend.
Talk to you next week,

Terry

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