Monday, March 21, 2005

Bush puts himself in the center of Terri Schiavo controversy

Bush puts himself in the center of Terri Schiavo controversy
Mar 21, 2005
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON President Bush's dash back to the White House to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case put him squarely in the center of a wrenching drama with political, medical and legal overtones.

Schiavo's case has become a rallying cry for religious conservatives, the powerful base of Bush's successful re-election bid.

While Bush isn't facing voters again, fellow Republicans in Congress will - and the involvement of the president and GOP lawmakers in Schiavo's case could help cement the religious right's enthusiastic backing in the 2006 midterm elections.

"Every opportunity to stroke the conservative base (Bush) has been taking," said Allan J. Lichtman, a political historian at American University. "And he knows that the conservative base is going to have to be very strong in the midterm elections if he wants to maintain his margins."

There also could be a familial consideration for the president. Brother Jeb Bush, the Florida governor who has made the Schiavo case an almost personal fight for years, has said he won't run for the White House in 2008. But what if he changes his mind, as many suspect he will? The president's high-profile support for his brother now could pay off later.

Bush raced back from his Texas ranch to be on hand to sign legislation giving a federal district court jurisdiction in the struggle over whether to prolong the life the brain-damaged Schiavo. A feeding tube keeping her alive was removed Friday.

Bush put his name to the measure early Monday, saying in a statement issued by the White House that in matters like the Schiavo case America's society, laws and courts "should have a presumption in favor of life."

Switching the case to a federal court contradicts Bush's oft-stated support for states' rights over federal control.

There is also criticism that even with narrowly tailored legislation, a dangerous precedent is being set on an issue that thousands of families struggle with around the country. "There ought to be a concern," said Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "If this one goes through, then why not the next case and so on?"

Lichtman said the case, with all its complexities, is a tough one for politicians to gauge.

"This is one of those emotional issues that can boomerang on you, as well as benefit you," he said. "A lot of conflicting values are at state. A lot of the same conservatives who are so strongly in support of this bill, on the other hand, support family autonomy, the right of families to make decisions free of the interference of government."

But Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor who has supported Jeb Bush, said the case is becoming more of a clear winner for Republicans.

"I think initially people though it was all about politics," she said. "But as the situation came to a head, people began to think it was a little broader than the political strategy of it - it was more about clarifying what is a very murky area of the law."

The White House vehemently denied that politics had anything to do with Bush's return to sign a bill that wasn't guaranteed to pass and in any case could be flown to him for his signature.

Spokesman Scott McClellan said the trip was solely about saving a life. The last thing the president wanted was to have Schiavo die in the gap between congressional passage of a bill and the hours it took to transport a bill to him and back to Washington.

"Hours do matter at this point," McClellan said, despite predictions by medical experts that it could take two weeks for Schiavo to die.

Bush aides also dismissed criticism that the extraordinary federal action on behalf of a single person represented overreaching by Washington, saying the contentious case presented difficulties that are rarely matched.

Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, say she could get better after 15 years in a persistent vegetative state. For years, they have battled Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, who thinks she should be permitted to die, as he insists she would have wanted.

"Most people recognize that this case involves some extraordinary circumstances," McClellan said.

He said there would be no public news coverage of any bill signing and that Bush would resume his previous plans Monday for a two-day, three-state Western swing to pitch his Social Security plans.

"The president doesn't want to throw himself into the spotlight," the spokesman said.

Even without cameras trained on Bush's pen, the case is politically charged.

"This is all about politics and nothing else," American University's Lichtman said. "Frankly, there is no other reason for him to come back other than to maximize the public impact of this political issue."


EDITOR'S NOTE: Jennifer Loven reports on the White House for The Associated Press. AP writer Deb Riechmann contributed from Crawford, Texas.