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Target of Opportunism

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page A15

For Tom DeLay, Terri Schiavo came along just in the nick of time. "One thing that God brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America," DeLay told a group of Christian conservatives last Friday.

And what, exactly, is going on in the United States? "Attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others," DeLay told his flock. So God has now thrown in with DeLay in his efforts to pack the House ethics committee with his allies so that he no longer need be the subject of the scrutiny and censure of his peers.

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I don't think this is what Martin Buber meant when he referred to an "I-Thou" relationship with the Lord, but I could be mistaken.

For Bill Frist, Terri Schiavo came along at an opportune moment. After inspecting some videotapes made by her parents, the doctor announced that the examinations by court-appointed physicians were erroneous in concluding that Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state for the past 15 years. He may also have concluded that if getting the jump on the 2008 Republican presidential field required issuing a preposterous diagnosis, that was a small price to pay. Frist isn't running for Neurologist in Chief, after all.

For George W. Bush, too, Terri Schiavo came along at a propitious time. All is not well in Bushland. The more the American people hear about the president's Social Security scheme, the more they reject it -- lately by margins approaching 2 to 1. The Bush bills that have been moving through Congress -- tightening up bankruptcy regulations, authorizing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, limiting consumer lawsuits -- do nothing for the Christian conservatives who helped reelect him. Indeed, the whole Bush economic agenda threatens social conservatives of modest means, as it does anyone of modest means. If signing a bill in his pajamas meant he could rekindle their support, why, that was worth even interrupting his sleep.

At its topmost ranks, and not only there, the party of Lincoln has become the party of Elmer Gantry. It peddles miracle cures and elixirs of life, to the benefit of the preachers, not the patients. When it comes to promoting real cures, today's Republicans are nowhere to be found. The Medicaid cuts pushed by the White House and passed by House Republicans last week would, if enacted into law, shorten the lives of numerous poor Americans living in conscious, not vegetative states. But that's a topic of no demonstrable interest to Christian conservatives, though I've yet to come across the biblical passage that exempts them from such concerns.

Bush, Frist, DeLay and the Republican apparat have behaved throughout this episode as if the political advantage clearly belonged to those who satisfied the most die-hard elements of the Christian right. But if polling conducted Sunday by ABC News is even remotely accurate, the Republicans may be badly mistaken. By 63 percent to 28 percent, the public supported the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, and fully 70 percent opposed the federal government's intervention. Those rejecting the Republican leadership's position included even Republicans (by a 58 to 39 percent margin) and evangelicals (by a 50 to 44 percent margin).

In their haste to curry favor with the Christian right, the Republican leaders have run roughshod over some very deeply rooted American -- and conservative -- beliefs. Americans tend to believe in their doctors, and in the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. They believe in spheres of privacy where the state cannot intrude. There's no more distinctly American belief than the right to be left alone by government. Liberals and conservatives differ over which great causes compel a suspension of that right, but both sides of the spectrum acknowledge it axiomatically.

That places a special burden on advocates for governmental activism in the United States. At a minimum, the consequences that the government's intervention will have on private lives -- and on the principle of the private life -- need to be weighed. And by intervening by fiat in the Schiavo tragedy, at the last minute, from on high, with no serious inspection of the particulars of the case and to clear political ends, the Republicans failed that test abysmally. In that sense, the Schiavo affair looks like their equivalent of what court-ordered busing was to liberals: an act of social engineering that runs counter to Americans' desire for control over their own, and their families', lives.

As with Social Security, the Republicans are now going too far, promoting priorities of party in-groups that don't resonate at all with the larger public. This is classic second-term overreaching, mixed in with the most myopic opportunism. The real opportunity here is for the Democrats, if they have sense enough to realize it.


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