Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Payoff Of Cowardice
The Payoff Of Cowardice
David Corn

Public opinion polls show Americans disapprove of the Republican Congress’ handling of the Terri Schiavo case. Corn argues that the public’s revulsion at the GOP intervention in a private family issue exposes a strategy Democrats can exploit: accusing Republicans of misusing their power for partisan purposes. With tough fights ahead on judicial nominations and stem cells, this strategy could prove useful.

David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).

The Democratic response to Tom DeLay's self-righteous, exploitative save-Terri-Schiavo crusade was, by large, run and hide. In the Senate, Democrats opposed to the last-minute legislation that would allow Schiavo's parents to challenge Florida court decisions in federal court did nothing. In the House, a few Democrats—Barney Frank, John Lewis, Robert Wexler and Debbie Wasserman Schultz—valiantly attempted to beat back DeLay's judicial activism. But their opposition was not a party-line position, and several dozen House Democrats voted for the measure. In this absence of (much) political bickering, the public, according to multiple polls, sided overwhelmingly against butting into this sad family conflict. At the same time, George W. Bush, who flew from his Crawford ranch to Washington to sign the bill, saw his approval ratings hit an all-time low. Coincidence?

It's possible that by not creating a big political fuss, the Democrats unintentionally helped shape the Schiavo affair into a one-party controversy. This was a Republican deal, and a large majority of the public—including many Republican citizens—came to believe that crass politics, not values, were motivating Bush, DeLay, Denny Hastert, Bill Frist and the others. And if the Republican campaign was indeed values-driven, then why did DeLay and the rest not seek further action (even Supreme Court intervention) when the federal courts refused to revisit the Schiavo case? Was it because that by this point the first wave of polls had hit? It's true, as many pundits have stated in recent days, that those most likely to mutter "Remember Terri" when they enter a voting booth in 2006 will be people who fervently looked for the DeLay crowd to intervene. (They'll probably be appreciative of the GOP efforts, though the more extreme advocates of Schiavo's parents might resent the Republicans for having not done enough, such as sending in the National Guard.) But perhaps the DeLay maneuver will also shift the terrain in Washington in a favorable direction for Democrats concerning at least two high-profile battles to come: judicial nominations and stem cells.

With the Social Security fight waning—and the Democrats politically ahead in that war of attrition—the next big thing in Washington, baring any unforeseen Schiavo-like episodes, will be what's known as the "nuclear option" in the Senate. The Republicans, pissed off that Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's 200 judicial appointments with filibusters, are considering rewriting Senate rules to end the use of filibusters on judicial appointments. The Democrats have vowed that if Republicans go "nuclear" in this manner, they will block almost all Senate activity (except the most essential, such as funding the troops overseas). The question this week is, do the Republicans have the votes to launch such an assault—several GOP moderates and traditionalists have resisted—and will they actually push the button? If this war does break out, the goal of each side will be to blame the other for bringing the Senate to a standstill.

No one can predict how much the public will care about a Senate slowdown. This would not be the same as the federal government shutdown of 1995, during which Bill Clinton was able to cast Newt Gingrich as the bad guy. Social Security checks will keep going out. Still, the Republicans will have Bush and the presidential megaphone on their side, as they seek to convince the public the Democrats are do-nothing, just-say-no-no-no obstructionists. For the Democrats, Senate minority leader Harry Reid will be leading the charge. I'm not sure I like those odds. But here's where the Schiavo episode might help the Dems. Since much of the public saw the Schiavo affair as an instance of Republicans overreaching, it might now be easier for the Democrats to sell their argument that the GOPers, by going "nuclear," are once again misusing their power for partisan purposes.

The Schiavo case may have further riled up the social conservative base of the Republican Party about judicial appointments. One unnamed GOP consultant told The Los Angeles Times, "It reinforces the notion that when it comes to matters of social policy, it is literally a matter of life and death in terms of who these judges are." But the Schiavo story also reinforced the notion that congressional Republicans are willing to employ desperate measures—such as stacking the federal judiciary—for partisan gains. Senate Democrats preparing to go into this mother of all legislative battles ought to consider how to tie the GOP's "nuclear" attack to the Republican extremism that offended most Americans in the Schiavo matter. Perhaps Democrats—or their allies (unions and progressive groups will be spending millions of dollars to support the Democrats in the filibuster battle)—can argue that the craven Republican busybodies who tried to hijack the courts in the Schiavo affair cannot be trusted to fill the federal courts. I'm not a political consultant who makes a living crafting bumper sticker-sized slogans and 10-second-long soundbites. But I do see potential here. And, remember, this is a "nuclear" war the Democrats don't have to win; they only need to fight to a draw.

As for stem cells, the House Republican leaders have promised to permit a debate and a vote on legislation that would expand the number of stem cell lines available for federally funded research. Why would they do this? I don't know. It may be a sign that there are too many GOPers who want to vote against Bush's restrictions on stem cell research and the House leaders cannot hold back the tide. Then again, the House leaders have not yet said when a vote would occur or what legislation would be allowed to come up for a vote. So it's possible that delays and various machinations will be employed by the House leadership to prevent a debate and vote. But Democratic supporters of expanding federal stem-cell research could be assisted by the Schiavo episode. Social conservatives will yelp about the Republicans granting advocates of stem cell research a vote. But after the Schiavo business—and the polls—will Republicans want to be seen as the lapdogs of the religious right, especially when the issue involves possible cures for various diseases? The Schiavo controversy was evidence that many Americans approach social issues with a pragmatism detached from ideology. They probably view stem-cell research in the same give-us-results fashion. (Even Nancy Reagan and Orrin Hatch do.) Democrats ought to press for a vote soon, and turn stem-cell research into another political issue that will discomfort those GOPers eager to toss red meat to their social conservative base. In other words, work that wedge.

By no means does the Schiavo case redefine politics in Washington. Both the Bush budget proposal and the GOP budget plans are mean and ugly, cutting social programs while extending tax cuts for the wealthy. The Democrats lost the vote on drilling in Alaska, and Democratic aisle-jumpers allowed Bush to rack up easy wins on bills to restrict class-action lawsuits and to assist the credit card companies on consumer bankruptcies. Bush's god-awful nominations (Wolfowitz, Negroponte and Bolton) are likely to be confirmed. But if the Democrats are cunning—yeah, a big if—they may be able to do more than stymie Bush's going-nowhere Social Security initiative. After all, cowardice is not likely to work again.

originally published March 30, 2005