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Political Expediency Abounds in Schiavo Case

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; 9:41 AM

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.

Republicans bucked public opinion and opened themselves up to charges of hypocrisy, that they deviated from their support for states' rights and the sanctity of marriage and their opposition to judge-shopping. Democrats, for the most part, stood by and watched.

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In the Senate, it took only one Democrat to force a debate on the bill. But not even good old, reliable Ted Kennedy sought to force a floor vote, thus allowing the Schiavo bill to pass by unanimous consent. A few Democrats, including Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) have spoken against the bill.

In the House, more than half of the Democrats didn't even bother to show up and vote. Seventy percent of Republicans came back from recess for the late-night vote on Monday morning.

The Schiavo case begs the question of whether voters will prefer a party that makes unpopular decisions to one that makes no decisions at all.

Democratic strategist David Sirota said 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."

Democrats continue to fuss over the meaning of a November exit poll that indicated moral issues as the top priority for a plurality of voters. Most voters who cited morality as their top issue voted for President Bush. The poll and the November drumming set off a new round of soul searching among the party faithful, who wondered aloud what they could do to counter the party's Godless reputation.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) favored the Schiavo measure and helped negotiate its wording with Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), according to Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid. There was no consistent position on the measure among Democratic senators, Manley said.

Of the 100 Democrats who showed up for the House vote, 47 supported the measure and 53 opposed it.

Other than Social Security, Democrats have found little to rally around, allowing GOP cakewalks on such issues as the bankruptcy and class-action lawsuit bills. But what makes the Democrats' handling of the Schiavo case so interesting is that a solid majority of the public appears to oppose to the GOP efforts.

In an ABC News poll, 63 percent of people said they supported the decision to remove Schiavo's feeding tube; 78 percent said they would not want to live under similar conditions; 70 percent of people said they were opposed to Congress's involvement; 67 percent said Congress was more concerned with politics than Schiavo's well being.

The intensity of the people who think Congress shouldn't have gotten involved could be one of the most important political aspects. Surprisingly, 58 percent who said they opposed congressional intervention were "strongly opposed," while only 14 percent of Americans who supported the Republican move supported it "strongly." Even among Catholics and evangelical Christians, only a minority supports the decision to continue feeding Schiavo by a tube. It undermines the theory that the Republican base -- though smaller on this issue, as it is on some other issues such as gun control -- is more energized.

In an op-ed in USA Today on Tuesday, House Majority Leader Tom Delay (Tex.) wrote that the Republican action was a moral obligation.

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