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GOP, Democrats Look for Symbolism in Schiavo Case

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By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005

Terri Schiavo is dead, but the passions stirred by the fight over her life will shape the political debate for a long time to come.

Republicans say the Schiavo case has mobilized their conservative base for the struggles over judicial nominations and a likely Supreme Court vacancy this summer. In defeat, they hope to make Schiavo's death into a rallying point for a broader "culture of life" movement to secure judges and a justice who would restrict abortions.

Democrats, backed by public opinion polls, say the conservatives overreached and that the GOP now appears to be a captive of the religious right. They say the Schiavo dispute, on top of struggles over stem cell research and gay rights, will cause a backlash by moderate Americans.

The diverging interpretations reflect larger electoral strategies by both parties. Democrats, following a traditional approach, believe they can return to power by staking out ground as the party of the center. Republicans, using a strategy employed successfully by President Bush in the 2004 elections, believe the key is not in appealing to the middle but in motivating its active conservative base.

The battle over Schiavo's symbolism has already begun. Tony Perkins, president of the Christian policy group Family Research Council, issued a statement after Schiavo's death blaming the judiciary (even though it was mostly conservative judges who rejected the intervention by Bush and Congress). "This is a tragic and unfortunate event that should awaken Americans to the problems in our court system," he said. "As many in the nation mourn the passing of Terri Schiavo, we should remember that her death is a symptom of a greater problem: that the courts no longer respect human life."

By contrast, former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, in an article published around the time of Schiavo's death, said Republicans are undergoing a "political crackup" as damaging as the Massachusetts decision to condone same-sex marriage was for Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign. "The Bush administration doesn't have a faith-based initiative; it is a faith-based initiative," he wrote in Salon.

The most direct consequence of the Schiavo affair is likely to be a push for federal and state legislation; lawmakers in both parties have proposed laws that would make it more difficult to remove life support in cases where the patients' wishes are disputed. The Senate health committee and House Government Reform Committee, among others, will examine parts of the issue.

But experts say changes are largely unnecessary. In the three decades since the Karen Ann Quinlan case, there have been only a few big legal battles over the "right to die." Alan Meisel, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said only one case in several thousand winds up in litigation -- hardly a legal crisis. "Schiavo is the exception that proves the rule: We haven't had a lot of agonizing cases," said Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration lawyer.

Beyond its direct impact, the Schiavo dispute is likely to color all sorts of policy debates, and, depending on how those turn out, could be part of the theme in next year's midterm elections.

Conservatives have begun to tie the case to their larger effort to win judges opposed to abortion. "It is entirely possible that in her death Terri Schiavo will become a symbol for many people about a disturbing trend in American culture," said Gary Bauer, a prominent conservative activist. Predicting a donnybrook over the eventual Supreme Court nominee, he said the Schiavo case "will make more acute the feeling at the grass roots that too many of the most important decisions are being made by unelected judges."

It is, of course, difficult to argue that the Schiavo case would have turned out differently if more of Bush's conservative judicial nominees had been confirmed. Conservative judges were at least as likely as liberals to oppose federal intervention. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, rejected the Schiavo appeal, and William H. Pryor Jr., whom Bush has seated temporarily on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in hopes of winning his confirmation to that court, did not object publicly from the decision not to hear the case. Key opinions relevant to the case were written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.

It was, in fact, an appellate judge appointed by President George H.W. Bush who wrote a ruling Wednesday criticizing the president and Congress for acting "in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers' blueprint for the governance of a free people -- our Constitution."

But conservatives say this will not prevent them from linking the Schiavo case to others. "Although the form of this issue was assisted suicide, it has a lot more relevance for abortion," said Jeff Bell, a Republican operative. "State-sanctioned private killing is what this is about." Bell said he was not concerned about public opinion, because "it's very clear the intensity is on the side of the people who thought this was an abomination."

Democrats, at first ambivalent on the issue and relatively quiet as the controversy played out, have been buoyed by polls such as one by CBS News last week finding that 82 percent opposed Bush and Congress involving themselves in the matter. Three-quarters thought Congress got involved because of politics over principle, which could account for the 34 percent approval rating for Congress -- its lowest since 1997.

Democrats say they are encouraged that the dispute has put some of the party's more extreme characters, such as antiabortion activist Randall Terry, into prominent roles. "The other side has overplayed its hand and taken a beating," said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan.

Some Republicans and conservatives have expressed worry that this may be true. In an op-ed in the New York Times this week, former Republican senator John C. Danforth cited the Schiavo case as evidence that "Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians." Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, usually supportive of Bush, called the federal intervention "a legal travesty, a flagrant violation of federalism and the separation of powers."

But Republicans and Democrats of all stripes are likely to return to party lines when the subject shifts to judicial nominations. And that suggests the fight could be even nastier than the Schiavo affair.

Nancy Kramer of St. Petersburg, Fla., holds a dead rose and a defaced photograph of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush yesterday in front of the Woodside Hospice, where Terri Schiavo died. Republican and Democratic strategists predict the Schiavo case will affect judicial nominations and electoral strategies.


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