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Political Analysis

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Managing Editor
Monday, March 21, 2005; 2:00 PM

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser took your questions and gives his instant commentary on the latest political news from President Bush and Congress.

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.


Silver Spring, Md.: Good afternoon Mr. Kaiser,

First let me say how much I enjoy and appreciate your online discussions.

Secondly, I'd like to ask if we, the taxpayers, are footing the bill for the Republican congressmen to return to Washington for this "emergency" session of Congress, and the president to "rush back" from a vacation to sign a bill which only affects one woman? That must be a significant "chunk of change." How can they justify spending that money when this bill is not significant to their states and does not benefit the people that they represent? It seems a flagrant misuse of funds at a time when we are at war and our budget is a disaster. It is hard not to think in those terms when income tax day looms in a couple of weeks.

This whole situation is absolutely ridiculous and inappropriate. This woman does not have a bright future to save her for, not to mention that she has been this way for 15 YEARS!! This President and his administration are kidding themselves if they think this will make people believe they care about them. What about all the people who can't even afford insurance or health care?? It is really embarrassing.

Thank you for your time.

Robert G. Kaiser: Good afternoon. Glad to be back here after too long an absence--from online discussions, that is. Lots of questions today about the Schiavo case and related matters, beginning with this one. Yes, I presume the taxpayer will pay for all this "emergency" travel. This is a political circus of the first rank, no doubt about it. Of course the issues behind the circus are real, and for individuals painful, I'm sure. I look forward to exchanging views with a lot of you about this over the next hour.


Ringwood, N.J.: Conservatives often decry judges who "legislate from the bench", but isn't Congress' action an attempt to influence a case that's being properly handled in the judicial branch? Sure, they are not telling the Federal Court how to decide, but, by being able to move a case from its usual judicial path to a different court AFTER the decision has been made and appealed, are they not in effect intruding on the judicial branch, not by making laws, but by trying to reverse one judicial decision?

Are there historical precedents for Congress intruding like this?

Robert G. Kaiser: I can't find a precedent in which Congress took a single case that has been dealt with (exhaustively, in this instance) in a state court and declared, when all state appeals and options have been exhausted, that it should now be reopened in federal court. Any lawyers out there know of such a case?


New York, N.Y.: Why haven't we seen the Senate GOP talking points memo?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. You can read quotes from it in Sunday's Post, in Mike Allen's story, which I hope we can link to here. Mike is not here now so I can't confirm my hunch that his sources read him the memo but didn't give him a copy. That happens quite often these days.


Reston, Va.: Mr. Kaiser,
Will the Post be running a story focused on the science in the Shaivo case? That's something I'd really like to read and haven't seen. (If it has been done, can you point me in the right direction?)

Robert G. Kaiser: This is an excellent idea which I will bring to the attention of the science editor. I haven't talked to him today so don't know if this is already planned, but like you I'd like to read it.


Winston-Salem, N.C.: I keep reading and hearing people blast congress for what they have done with this case. While I may not agree with it, I feel that the family has catapulted this case into the circus you see today. The politicians are jumping on board because of the public outcry, a result of the family asking people to "call your congressman". I wonder why, if her family wants her alive that badly, that the husband does not divorce Terri and go on with his life. It would seem the most logical thing to do.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, you're assuming a lot in your posting. My sense is that the husband has felt all along that he had an obligation to do what he believed his wife wanted done in this situation.


Washington, D.C.: What exactly did Congress do yesterday? I'm rusty on my constitutional law, but can Congress expand the jurisdiction of an Article III court? If so, how and what are the implications for the action?

Robert G. Kaiser: The Constitution does grant to Congress the authority to define the jurisdiction of the federal courts. I'm sorry I don't have the exact reference at hand; I should have gotten it ready for this discussion. But as I said above, I don't know of a single precedent for this sort of creation of a new federal jurisdiction for a single case. And since the system has run for two centuries or more on the assumption that cases of this kind rightly belong in state courts, this does constitute a radical departure from past paractice.


washingtonpost.com: Congress Steps In on Schiavo Case (Mike Allen, Washington Post, March 20)


Arlington, Va.: Can any good come of the precedent the Schiavo case is setting in the government's ability to interfere in personal and private decisions?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, how do you define "any good"? Obviously a lot of Americans are convinced that people leading limited lives like Terri Schiavo's ought never be taken off life support, and those people appear to favor legal or political action to achieve that situation.


Centreville, Va.: What gives Congress and the President the right to interfere in a state matter? Years of court rulings at every level in Florida has sided repeatedly with the husband. Regardless of your personal feelings in this matter, the courts have spoken. It seems that Congress and President Bush are getting involved because they do not like what the courts have ruled upon. Does this not set a dangerous precedent that would allow the Federal government to interfere in state matters that the current political party or climate does not agree with?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for this thoughtful posting, which I confess expresses thoughts I have been thinking myself. I am a conservative older guy, but I've long felt that the separation of powers and states rights (genuine ones, not racially motivated phony states rights) are key elements of the American system that I believe in.


Yonkers, N.Y.: In 1999 when he was Governor of Texas, Bush signed a law which allowed hospitals to withdraw life support from patients in cases they considered the treatment to be non-beneficial. This could be done even over the objections of the family.

When he was Governor of Texas, Bush routinely ignored death row appeals in cases where guilt was in doubt, prosecutorial errors were evident or legal defense representation was lacking.

Why is the press so silent on asking (in person and in print) President Bush when is life important and when it is not?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know about the 1999 law you describe; I'll see if I can learn something about it while we are here. If you describe it accurately, that's an interesting bit of history.


Washington, D.C.: I've only seen one poll regarding the Schiavo situation, but it makes me think that Republicans are going to wish they looked before leaping into this. A clear majority of people polled said that Michael Schiavo was right to pull his wife's feeding tube, as well as saying that Congress should stay out of it. Do you think that this will come back to hurt the GOP next year? I have to think that whatever amount of social conservatives who are happy about this, are vastly outnumbered by the conservatives who want the federal government to stay out of state matters.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting. Whose poll was that? I am notoriously bad at predicting the political implications of one thing or another, but I share your doubts that this is along-term winnner for Republicans. Will Americans really applaud the idea that Congress and the president should get involved in such personal matters as the Schiavo family's tragedy, and dictate an outcome?


Bristol, Tenn.: Thanks for your time in taking our questions. Will these actions open the door for other types of cases that have been decided in State Courts to be revisited using the Schiavo case as precedent?

Robert G. Kaiser: The Senate bill passed over the weekend contains a lot of language trying to prevent from happening what you describe. We have opened a whole new book here, and I have no idea where it might lead.


Columbia, Md.: As to "public outcry" in the Schiavo issue, it seems to me the outcry is from a very vocal and intense minority. On-line surveys show the public does not agree with what Congress has done, specifically one conducted by the Wall Street Journal. Other surveys exist. Will the Post be running a story on what the public reaction really is?

Robert G. Kaiser: Online surveys are NOT an accurate reflection of public opinion, since the respondents are all self-selected. That said, I wouldn't bet against your view that public opinion won't support what Congress has done here. I'm sure there will be a Post-ABC poll on this soon, but can't give you a date today.


Washington, D.C.: The Republican party has long prided itself on it's stance on minimal government interference in the lives of the constituents. Lately it seems that this tenet of the party has been grossly reversed, with the Schiavo case the most startlingly obvious example of this. Is the party going through a major redefinition of itself?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're touching on an interesting problem for the GOP. There is real tension between its moralistic, Christian wing and its more libertarian elements. The moralists are eager to ban abortions and limit birth control, control or ban the teaching of evolution, etc. etc., while the libertarian impulse is to back off and let people do what they want to do, within reason. Members of both groups may call themselves "Republicans," but in fact they sharply disagree on many important subjects.

Democrats also have fissures in their coalition, of course. It has occured to me that one of the interesting questions about the next phase of American politics is, whose fissures are going to rupture first, Republicans' or Democrats'?


Tifton, Ga.: I can't help but feel the government has gone too far. Seems to me Terri Shiavo's legal guardian should be the one making decisions. Isn't that the job of the legal guardian? I don't know enough about this case. I don't even know who the legal guardian is. I assume it's the husband.

I think an indepth story about this situation is a good idea. It's none of our business but since the Congress has invited us we may as well know the whole story.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. In Florida, the ins and outs of this case have been plowed through again and again. Politicians have tried to interfere repeatedly; Gov. Jeb Bush has pushed several different approaches to overruling the court decisions that led to today's impasse, but without success. National media have reported a lot on the case, but I can certainly forgive you for not having previously paid a lot of attention to it. In the days ahead you'll have many opportunities to make up for that!


Washington, D.C.: Re: the Yonkers question on the 1999 Law

It was that law which was relied upon last week when a terminally ill infant, Sun Hudson, was pulled off life support over the mother's objections. I agree with Yonkers that Bush and others "championing" Terri Schiavo should be questioned about this, but so far I've seen nothing.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. We'll certainly look into it.


Richmond, Va.: ABC has done apoll showing 67 percent of respondents opposed to Congress' involvement. In addition, 54 percent of conservatives agree with that opposition.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I just found the ABC poll and a story about it, which you can all find here: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/PollVault/story?id=599622&page=1

You report it accurately. This was a telephone poll of a sample of about 500 Americans, taken last night, it appears. It suggests to me ovewhelming opposition in the public to what the Congress and President Bush have done here over the weekend.


Bills of attainder: Aren't bills of attainder (laws to benefit a single person) unconstitutional?

Robert G. Kaiser: My colleague Chuck Lane, who covers the Supreme Court, reminds me that bills of attainder would be laws intended to punish a single individual. That's not what we have here, I don't think.


Arlington, Va.: Did the Post give any coverage or follow-up to the the address given on March 14 by Republican congressmen Wayne Gilchrest and Roscoe Bartlett concerning the imminent peaking of world oil/gas supply? The subject would seem to have a much more profound effect on US citizens than the currently hyped subject of the Schiavo case.

Robert G. Kaiser: A quick check by me suggests we may not have reported this speech, but we have reported many times on the view, not yet universally accepted, but believed by many experts, that the world has passed the moment of peak oil production, and is on a long downhill slide. Yes, this is a big fact, if true, more important than the Schiavo case or the Michael Jordan trial, if I dare say so...


San Francisco, Calif.: Hello,
How will others that are in the same situation be blocked form receiving this expedited attention from the Congress and the President?

Robert G. Kaiser: Hi. The bill passed by Congress affects only the Schiavo case. These are its terms.


Washington, D.C.: Is it possible for the federal judge--a Clinton appointee, for what it's worth--to decline to hear the case? And if so, at that point do you think the the Republicans will cut their losses and just grumble about activist judges, or keep pushing the issue?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sure it's possible, though I suspect it would be easier for a judge to give the parties a chance to argue their positions before making a decision. But I can imagine a judge in this case saying hey, the issues have all been adjudicated and re-adjudicated, there is no basis for reopening the matter. I suspect we don't have long to wait to find out how this judge will handle it.


Nashville, Tenn.: I'm having trouble understanding why the Schiavo case is raising such passions in people. It's a tragic story, to be sure, and I can't imagine being in the position of either her husband or her parents. But it's been reviewed by nineteen different judges. It's been determined that she herself expressed a wish not to live in her current state. It's a tremendously difficult decision to let a family member go, and I'm appalled by attempts by so many to substitute their own judgment.

Not to mention the fact that children in this country die every single day because they don't have proper health care, and we sure don't see much outrage from conservatives over violations of their "constitutional rights." I think there's some very shrewd and calculated political pandering going on, and I'm frightened for the precendent such specialized legislation sets.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. Anyone out there want to offer a different view?


Delmar, N.Y.: Why has there be so little in the press about how common the action is of removing life support or suspending nourishment from patients with no cognitive brain activity. This happens every day and every reputable medical authority concludes that the ensuing death is not painful. It is not accurate to characterize this as starving someone to death.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. I know the accuracy of what you note from reading the Post, so I guess we have dealt with it in the past, but it is time to revisit all these issues, I agree.


Fairfax, Va.: Recently Senate Democrats split to vote with Republicans for the bankruptcy bill, and three Democrats voted decisively to make possible ANWAR drilling after years of opposition. These votes seem to indicate the Democrats are not united enough to shut the Senate down should Frist employ the nuclear option against the filibuster. Do you think the Democrats will cave, and if so, would that end any chances of effective Democratic opposition at least through 2006?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting question. My sense is that the Senate Democrats are in disarray at the moment. Their behavior over the weekend on the Schiavo case suggests as much, I think. But there have already been signs that on a few issues, including Social Security and a Supreme Court nomination, they are more likely to hang tough together than they did on ANWAR, for example. But we'll just have to see. I wrote a piece after the election arguing that the Democrats' biggest problem was their need to decide what they believe in. It's still their biggest problem.


Concerned Republican in Virginia: More a comment than a question.

As a conservative, and a lawyer, I have long abhorred the practice of trying to get at the court house what one could not get at the state house; a tactic often engaged in by those with liberal social agendas. Abortion rights and gay right are the two clearest examples.

What has just occurred, however, has me equally alarmed with my conservative brethren. Failing the ruling that was desired at the court house (not to mention at every appellate level including the Supreme Court) and failing the assistance of the state legislature, the federal government steps in.

There is a reason we have particular processes in place and when we torture the system to reach a particular result we do it violence. I would love to see this fedral judge refuse to be a pawn of a political agenda and decline to act.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.


Germantown, Md.: What course will the President and the Hill take if/when this fails?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'd bet a nickel -- hell, a dime -- that they won't take this any farther. That new ABC Poll suggests why.


Exeter, N.H.: It seems to me that the ANWAR drilling vote has received scant attention in the main stream media. I watched all the weekend talking heads shows and didn't hear a single mention of it.

Do you think it's because Americans are uninterested, or is this a case of the media finding stories that are less offensive to advertisers to report on?

My sinicism was heightened at the end of Meet the Press, when an oil services firm (I forget the name) ran an ad on the wonders of drilling rig technologies.

Robert G. Kaiser: I hope and believe that your cynicism (my preferred spelling) is unwarranted. The Post certainly reported the ABNWAR vote prominently, as did other major newspapers. Perhaps you are watching too much television. Television news really isn't very good, you know.


Arlington, Va.: We have heard over and over again that this is not a political gesture. However, Congress has voted repeatedly on whether to permit partial-birth abortion, a practice that many Americans regard as odious while other believe that it is critical to a woman's rights. The Congress could have outlawed the practice of withdrawing artifical means of feeding and hydration in the case of persons in a persistent vetgetative state. This would, of course, have negated provisions in many living wills including my own. Instead the Congress has choses this rather strange way of giving the parents another shot through the Federal courts, which may ultimately end in the same result: withdrawal of the feeding tubes. Have any politicians been forthright enough to say they want to abolish the practice of withdrawal of sustenance? I believe that anything less is the utmost exercise of cynical political manipulation.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. Ihaven't seen any politician calling for the end to the possibility of withdrawing sustenance to patients in extremis. Anyone out there seen anything like that?


Dover, Del.: I read with interest that Bill Frist has said that he disagrees with the diagnosis of Terri Schaivo's doctors.

My question is for the doctors in the audience: is it ethical for a doctor to weigh in publicly with a diagnosis of a patient that he has never examined? Does anyone know Frist's medical speciality?

Personally, I think the best way for Michael Schiavo to play this would be to call Congress' bluff. Agree to their subpoena, and let them see firsthand how aware -- or unaware -- Mrs. Schiavo is.

Like many of us, Congress is making its decision on information that is getting second-hand.

It's time for lawmakers to cut through the noise and see for themselves what is really going on.

Any thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: Frist is a cardiac surgeon. One of our stories over the weekend raised a question about his ability to second-guess a neurological diagnosis by looking at videotapes.


Provo, Utah: Mr. Kaiser,

Do we know anything about the federal judge/judges to whom this case has been assigned? Presumably, Congress moved this case to federal court because it anticipated a ruling more favorable to the parents. What is that assumption based on?

Robert G. Kaiser: Our current story on the front page of washingtonpost.com answers your questions:
The judge is a Clinton appointee named James D. Whittemore.


Tucson, Ariz.: How do you folks in D.C. stand the motorcades? Dubya is in town today, and I just spent an hour in traffic waiting for this black train to pass. Glad he does not come here often!

Robert G. Kaiser: Our traffic is a disaster, daily. The pres stays home a lot, but VP Cheney commutes two and from his official residence on Massachusetts Ave. twice a day, with about ten vehicles making a mess of traffic both times. And every visiting chief of state seems to have the right to mess up traffic too. Personally I walk to work.


Tampa, Fla.: I would like to point out (1) Mr. Schindler, Terri's father, admitted under oath he would be doing the same thing even if Terri had left the clearest of instructions, including a living will, that the feeding tube be removed in her present state. So this is NOT about Terri's wishes. (2) The 4-minute video clip of Terri supposedly responding to stimuli leaves out 4 HOURS of video showing her completely non-responsive to stimuli. (3) Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's medical expert and a neurologist (unlike Mr. Frist), said he has found NO instance of someone recovering from Terri's condition and that medical protocols properly define her condition as a PERMANENT, not persistent, vegatative state. He also said the two physicians appointed by the Schindlers who said Terri may not be in a persistant vegatative condition have been discredited. (4) The local Catholic Bishop (of the St. Petersburg, FL, diocese) released a statement last week saying it's time for Terri's husband, Michael, to implement Terri's wish to be disconnected.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.


College Park, Md.: What do you think of Gov Mark Warner (Va.-D) or Gov Mark Sanford (S.C.-R) as potential candidates for president in 2008 for their respective parties?

Robert G. Kaiser: I am going to decline to answer this question on the (happy) grounds that 2008 is still four years away!


Herndon, Va.: As sad as this case is, hasn't the Bush Administration gone through all this trouble so that she can live additional years in a persistent vegitative state?

Also, does this open a Pandora's box for Federal intervention in state affairs?

Robert G. Kaiser: I will now post several comments from readers who all tend to see the Schiavo case in the same way. I'd welcome different views as well. Here's the first one.


New York, N.Y.: I am appalled and furious at what our Congress did over the weekend. They took a case that had already been litigated through the courts and decided since they did not like the outcome, they would start passing laws to change that outcome. This is so blatantly unconstitutional I have to believe it was nothing more than political grandstanding. Washington has sunk to an all-time low.

Robert G. Kaiser: and a second...


Los Angeles, Calif.: Good afternoon, Mr. Kaiser,
Your chats are some of the best. Please tell me what you meant by "phony racially motivated states rights." Just wondering specifically what type of scenario you're referring to. Thank you!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for catching a sloppy formulation (I have no editor here!). I was referring to the fact that when I was young, in the '60s, Gov. Ross Barnett of Miss., and Gov. George Wallace of Ala., among many others, used to invoke "states rights" to try to avoid implementing laws and court decisions that required, finally, an end to the Jim Crow racial segregation policies that prevailed in this country, particularly in the South, for the first half of the 20th Century. I don't think states ever had the "right" to make second-class citizens of African Americans.


Newark, Del.: I originally thought, with the two conflicting bills of the Senate and House as well as the coming recess, Congress was going to let the bill die. In other words say, "We tried." and then go home and say to their constituents whatever was politically expediant.

I see I was mistaken, and suprised at the bipartisan support. My representative Mike Castle was one of five Republicans to vote against the bill and I appreciate/applaud his resoluteness. What do you think this says about the two parties, that this bill got such widespread support. Including a unanimous decition in the Senate? Was this a fight the Democrats didn't want so they rolled over? Were a large number of Republicans muscled by their leadership over their objections?

Robert G. Kaiser: We'll learn more about this today, I'm sure, but my strong hunch is that the politicians panicked.


Arlington, Va.: Assuming the federal judge rules for Terri Schiavo's parents, and the feeding tube is reconnected, how much of a PR nightmare will Republicans be in for when congressmen and senators start getting a barrage of requests to intervene in other family disputes? They can't possibly pass bill after bill that only relates to each individual case, but at the same time, they'd look horrible if they started refusing to give other families the same courtesy they've given to Schiavo's parents.

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question.


Washington, D.C.: Here's a counterpoint to what seems to be the general reaction that you are hearing on the Schiavo case. The facts and circumstances surrounding this case make me profoundly uneasy with the outcome. Both Mr. Schiavo and the trial judge (whose findings of fact have, consistent with our legal system, gone virtually unreviewed until now) now appear to have quite a bit at stake here, and in the face of other family members who profoundly disagree, I can't help but think that a new factual inquiry by a Federal court in this case will be a good thing. Our legal system quite correctly has extensive procedures in place to prevent a convicted criminal from being wrongly executed. It is frightening to see how few protections there are to assure that a legal guardian does not wrongfully terminate a life. One state court judge makes a factual finding, and that's it? No recourse anywhere? In these circumstances, action by Congress (and before that the Florida legislature) is clumsy, but I don't think it is wrong.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm grateful to you for that thoughtful comment. I'm not sure you are right about the findings of fact, but nor do I know you are wrong. I do know that the case has been heard and reheard in Florida courts for years. Anyhow, thank you for posting.

That will end today's discussion. I hope on another occasion before too long we can have a chat more broadly about Bush and Congress, the subject this one was originally meant to cover.


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