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Remembering the Terri Schiavo case of 2005 as a watershed for the Republican Party

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The 10th anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Iraq has given rise to lots of retrospective punditry on how that military misadventure did great political harm to the Republican Party and the presidency of George W. Bush (see HERE, for example).

Most of this analysis is fairly accurate, but it ignores what I have long considered another important turning point for Republicans in the same decade, one which gave much of the American public cause to question the GOP’s moralistic agenda.

That controversy, which emerged eight years ago this month, involved the legal wrangling over whether to pull the plug on Terri Schiavo (above), a 41-year-old Florida woman who had been lingering in a vegetative state for 15 years following a sudden illness.

President George W. Bush and the Republicans who controlled both houses of Congress were eager to ingratiate themselves with certain elements of the anti-abortion movement, which had latched onto the Schiavo case as a cause celebre.

A memo written by Brian Darling, a legal aide to Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, suggested that the Schiavo case represented “a great political issue” for Republicans that would appeal to the party’s base.

So, on March 20, 2005, Congress passed legislation transferring jurisdiction in the case to the federal courts, an effort to stall or avert the pulling of the plug on Schiavo, which had been approved by Florida state courts. President Bush even cut short a vacation at his Texas ranch and hurried back to Washington to sign the bill into law.

GOP politicians were convinced that their valiant rush to save Schiavo would endear them to the general populace. But that wasn’t the way it worked out.

Instead, most Americans were appalled at the government’s meddling in the case, as indicated in this poll conducted at the time. Even most self-proclaimed conservatives and a plurality of evangelicals looked askance at the political posturing.

The Republican gang was dumbstruck at the reaction. They had been arguing that Schiavo was not terminally ill. They had agreed with the crackpot theorists who said Schiavo had frequent moments of lucidity and might someday fully recover. They were sure that conservative America would side with them against the evil forces of the ACLU and the culture of death championed by the political left.

One of the Republican lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart surgeon, had even delivered a lengthy floor speech in which he declared that Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state, despite her own doctors’ claims to the contrary. Frist’s diagnosis was based entirely on his examination of  video footage of Schiavo. He never actually saw her in person.

The problem for the GOP pols was that most Americans could readily imagine a case like Schiavo’s occurring in their own families. Most were able to imagine themselves in Schiavo’s situation and having busybody politicians keeping them alive without any practical justification.

Schiavo died on March 31, and a subsequent autopsy revealed that she had, in fact, been in a vegetative state for many years and that she never would have recovered. It also showed that her brain was barely half the normal size for a woman her age.

Thus ended a bizarre political circus that can be seen in retrospect as a misstep by President Bush and congressional Republicans from which they never recovered.

During that winter just before Schiavo died, Bush and the Republicans were still basking in the glow of their electoral victories of the previous November. Indeed, the president wondered aloud that winter just how he might spend the political capital he had amassed. He had all kinds of bold plans in mind, including “reform” of Social Security. He was in the catbird seat.

And then came the Schiavo matter and its disastrous political outcome for Republicans. GOP fortunes subsequently suffered from numerous other factors – the war in Iraq, federal incompetence in dealing with Hurricane Katrina, an economic crisis, scandals here, scandals there, scandals everywhere — but the Schiavo case was a major turning point.

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