Inside the numbers: Terri Schiavo

Posted: Mar 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Don't get me wrong. All weekend I was rooting for Congress to do what it had to do in order to get Terri Schiavo back on her feeding tube.

 I've had strong reservations about her husband's claim that she once told him never to sustain her life by these devices. I'm particularly uneasy with his claim given that he has spent the last 10 years living with another woman and fathering two children by her.

 But my personal beliefs have little to do with the sentiments of the American people. And therein floats the tip of an iceberg that could cast a dark shadow on the horizon of future Republican political fortunes.

 Few recall that in the 1992 presidential primary, then-President George H.W. Bush was drifting into the camps of the vocal pro-life and so-called Christian Coalition movements. This was partly a function of his eight years as vice president to Ronald Reagan. But it was also a result of having to face Pat Robertson in the Republican primaries of 1988, and then a surprisingly strong Pat Buchanan in 1992.

 After Bush's defeat in '92, otherwise strong conservative Republicans -- many of whom I won't name for their own protection! -- started drifting away from the pro-life movement. Media interviews at the time showed that many of these one-time social-conservative candidates and elected officials were starting to temper their social issues positions. Many were saying off the record that the GOP should stick to a message of fiscal and governmental restraint, and lessen its efforts to steer the nation's social conscience.

 This was an overreaction. It was caused partly by the failure of many Republicans to recognize that President Bush's defeat was as much because of third-party candidate Ross Perot as it was because any "religious right" voter base in rebellion.

 Now in 2005, the pundits for both the Republican and Democratic sides have come to believe that activist government interventions on behalf of anything appealing to this voting bloc are politically significant.

 All of this is good and well except for one thing. The public mood is quixotic. Can anyone truly argue that public sentiment and philosophy has changed so much in recent years so as to now be far away from where it was in 1998, when former President Bill Clinton's approval rating topped out at 65 percent at the height of the impeachment scandal? Has America really reversed course so much since then that it now fully embraces all doctrines of social conservatives?

 Public opinion polls on the Schiavo matter have consistently shown that most Americans believe her feeding tube should have been removed. Admittedly, few have more than a limited knowledge of Schiavo's circumstances. Nevertheless, these are strong polling numbers. They fly in the face of the conventional wisdom emanating from many political experts.

 Former Congressman Bob Barr is known as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. He also believes excessive federal intervention on the Schiavo affair is bad for his party and the United States.

  "Congress interjecting itself into a state court case at the eleventh hour, and passing emergency legislation offering one person access to the federal court contrary to long-standing precedent, itself sets a troubling precedent. It will severely weaken future congressional efforts to respect principles of federalism and separation of powers," he told me.

 There is much to be said for simply doing what one believes is right. As a casual observer of the Schiavo situation, I give the benefit of the doubt to the suffering parents who want to keep their daughter alive. We should all believe that miracles can and do happen. Some media have dressed up Schiavo's husband as the biggest victim outside of Terri herself. To me, he doesn't invite such a sympathetic portrait.

 All of that must be put aside when analyzing long-term political implications and strategy. Over the past few years, Republican legislators and Congress appear to be running contrary to perhaps the most important precept of the GOP and conservative movements. We are seeing more and more intervening, regulating and imposing of new policies at every turn.

 Much of it arises from the necessary reaction to Sept. 11, or a response to Enron and similar corporate scandals.

 Still, Republican legislators and lawmakers need to step back and closely examine whether many of these actions are truly rooted in the philosophy of less government and more personal responsibility, or whether they are in fact sops to special interest groups and narrow (but significant) voting blocs whose electoral clout may eventually fade.

 Whatever the reason or justification, it seems that practically every day brings the nation new requirements, rules, regulations and programs that further complicate and invade our private lives.

 Republicans need to keep in mind that the public's mood can turn. Americans may wake up one day and suddenly say they've had enough of what once seemed to be a good thing.