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Terri Schiavo & the Right-Wing Machine

By Sam Parry
April 1, 2005

The media frenzy surrounding the Terri Schiavo case is new evidence of the American Right’s ability to dominate national news cycles, a power that has become possibly the most intimidating force in modern U.S. politics. In the Schiavo case, however, the Right has discovered that even its impressive message machinery sometimes can push the envelope too far.

In the Schiavo tragedy, leaders of the Christian Right and the Republican Party marketed themselves as the defenders of life and painted their liberal adversaries as intellectual elitists lacking compassion for a defenseless woman. Conservative leaders also hoped to rally their base around the need for more conservative judges who would defend the so-called “culture of life.”

With stunning bravado, the Right played on the Schiavo story’s appeal as a round-the-clock cable TV drama: a life-or-death countdown; grieving parents; a husband who could be made into the heavy; supposedly insensitive judges; Republican leaders rushing to the rescue, including both Jeb and George W. Bush.

But then the results of early opinion polls rolled in. Those samplings of public opinion suggested that – at least this time – the religious Right, congressional Republicans and the Bushes may have overreached, looking more ghoulish than godly. The conservatives may have underestimated the risk of exploiting a crisis that touches on the personal experiences of too many Americans.

It is one thing to whip up outrage against a foreign leader, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or to focus anger at an individual politician, like Sen. John Kerry. Few Americans have much knowledge of foreign affairs or have much sympathy for a politician whom they know mostly through televised images. In both situations, it’s easy to get the U.S. public to think the worst.

Painful Decisions

But the Schiavo case featured an issue that thousands of Americans face every year: how to deal with painful end-of-life decisions for their loved ones – and whether they themselves would want to continue living with severe brain damage, kept alive in a semi-vegetative state with tubes coming out of their bodies.

People who have been forced to contemplate such matters know that there are no easy answers, only hard choices.

According to an Associated Press report, the decision to take a patient off life support is one that is made “at least tens of thousands” of times every year, though actual figures are not tracked at America’s hospitals.

“It's so common, many hospitals don't require these kinds of decisions to be brought before an ethics panel anymore,” Laurie Zoloth, a professor of medical ethics at Northwestern University, told the AP.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a similar end-of-life decision even confronted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 1988 after his father, Charles, was injured in a tram accident and had no hope of recovering from a near-vegetative state. DeLay joined other family members in deciding to end his father’s life support.

That experience, however, has not stopped DeLay from fanning the flames of outrage against Terri Schiavo’s husband, Michael, and the judges who backed the decision to remove her feeding tube and let the brain-damaged woman die after 15 years in what doctors diagnosed as a “persistent vegetative state.”

Bizarre Spectacle

Though the Schiavo case was far from unique, the conservatives displayed their media might by transforming it into the dominant news story for almost two weeks, drawing 24-hour coverage on cable channels and overwhelming other news that might normally be viewed as more important.

Only a few liberal commentators have dared to note, for instance, the contrast between Bush’s high-profile role in the Schiavo case and his low-profile performance after a Minnesota school shooting that claimed the lives of 10 people, the worst such incident since the Columbine massacre in 1999.

The apparent logic behind Bush’s differing reactions was that the Schiavo case was a cause celebre for Bush’s Christian conservative base, while the Minnesota school shooting carried the risk of reviving demands for tighter gun control, which might offend another powerful Bush constituency, the gun lobby.

So while no legislative initiative followed the Minnesota deaths, the Republican-controlled Congress held an extraordinary weekend session to pass special legislation to put the Schiavo case back in federal court. Perhaps even more remarkably, President Bush interrupted a Texas vacation to fly back to Washington to sign the bill.

This was the same George W. Bush who so treasures his relaxation on his ranch that he went fishing after receiving a briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, about Osama bin Laden’s determination “to strike in U.S.” There was also no clear reason why the Schiavo legislation could not have been flown to Texas for the president’s signature, rather than having Bush dramatically return to Washington.

The political theatrics were reminiscent of another case of Republican moralistic posturing: the 1998-99 impeachment crisis over Bill Clinton’s lying about sex with White House aide Monica Lewinsky. Then, the Republican-controlled Congress intruded into another private matter – marital infidelity – where millions of Americans, including many leading Republicans, had personal experience.

But it’s not clear what the longer-term political fall-out from the Schiavo case will be. Remember that Republicans suffered short-term embarrassment, too, when their Lewinsky impeachment drive failed to oust Clinton, but their unrelenting scandal investigations undermined Democratic candidate Al Gore’s election bid in 2000, paving the way for George W. Bush’s presidency.

Lessons Learned?

So, it’s still too soon to tell whether perceived Republican reversals on the Schiavo case will represent a turning point or simply a lost skirmish in the course of a long and victorious war. Terri Schiavo’s death on March 31 could generate more public sympathy for the Republican position.

Also by pushing the political limits in the Schiavo case, the conservatives may have gained some fresh tactical understanding of how they can refine their P.R. strategies and better apply their media power. There’s the potential, too, for more fund-raising and for identifying recruits.

When Schiavo’s parents sold a list of their financial backers to a conservative direct-mail firm, the company, Response Unlimited, highlighted the value of soliciting people who “are passionate about the way they value human life, adamantly oppose euthanasia and are pro-life in every sense of the word!” [NYT, March 29, 2005]

Once the political posturing of the Schiavo case fades from memory, it’s possible the Republicans will have solidified their political image among red-state voters as the morally superior defenders of a “culture of life.”

Liberal Defensive

This “culture of life” positioning has the additional P.R. advantage of keeping liberals and progressives on the defensive over issues of social justice, where they generally have dominated through American history.

In the Schiavo case, the Republicans cleverly hijacked liberal rhetoric about defending the rights of the weak, paying at least lip service to Bush’s effective political slogan of “compassionate conservatism.”

By contrast, liberals who argued against the extraordinary government intervention in the Schiavo case may find themselves again stereotyped as uncaring, intellectual elitists. Conservatives have sought to link liberal support for abortion rights and opposition to forcing the reattachment of Schiavo’s feeding tube as proof that progressives favor a “culture of death” both for those near the start of life and those at the end.

The conservative media offensive also underscored once again the liberals’ biggest political weakness, the lack of a message apparatus that even comes close to competing with the conservative powerhouse of print, TV, radio and Internet outlets.

Liberals simply don’t have a comparable infrastructure to explain that progressive issues, such as protecting the environment and reducing poverty, are “culture of life” issues, too. [For more on the media imbalance, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Too Little, Too Late” or Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

If liberals had a megaphone remotely as large as the conservatives’, they might be able to make that case. For instance, protecting air quality could save thousands of American lives each year and improve the health of many others, including millions of children.

Health experts estimate that between 50,000 and 100,000 Americans die every year as a result of breathing unhealthy air caused by pollution emitted into the atmosphere by power plants, factories, and on-road and off-road vehicles. Environmental groups estimate that as much as 80 percent of this pollution could be cleaned from the air within 10 years using existing cost-effective technologies.

The economic impact also could be positive as Americans would save billions of dollars every year in health-care costs.

Air pollution not only kills tens of thousands of Americans, but another 22 million Americans suffer from asthma, a figure that has doubled in the last 15 years with an even higher percentage among children. The respiratory illness is now responsible for 9 million visits to health care professionals every year, including 1.8 million emergency room visits and 460,000 hospitalizations.

Altogether, more than half of all Americans live with unhealthy air pollution, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

But, the big polluters and special interests have succeeded in convincing Bush and other Republican leaders to limit government action on air pollution.

Another liberal “culture of life” issue could be the need to take action to ease the suffering of roughly 36 million Americans who live in poverty, including 13 million children, according to statistics from the Children’s Defense Fund.

Children who live in poverty are 1.6 times more likely to die in infancy than other children, are 1.8 times more likely to be born prematurely, are 1.9 times more likely to be born with a low birth-weight, are 3.5 times more likely to drop out of school, and are half as likely to graduate from four-year college. In addition, roughly 9 million children don’t have health care to cover routine childhood check-ups.

Rising Crime

Crime reduction could be another “culture of life” issue that the Democrats might cite if they had an effective media apparatus. After dropping rapidly throughout the Clinton administration, the murder rate in America increased slightly in the first three years of the Bush administration, according to FBI crime numbers.

In 1993, Clinton’s first year as president, there were 24,526 murders in America. By 2000, Clinton’s last year as president, that figure had been reduced to 15,586 murders, almost lowered by half on a per capita basis.

In 2003, the last full year with statistics listed on the FBI’s Web site, the number of murders had increased 6 percent to 16,503, as Bush and the congressional Republicans cut the Clinton-era cops-on-the-street program.

While national headlines and TV chat shows have been filled with news about the tragic case of Terri Schiavo, this larger picture of worsening health, poverty and crime statistics rarely gets in-depth attention.

Media Manipulation

It is how the conservatives force attention on their issues – and limit the focus on less favorable issues – that is the key to understanding what’s happened to American politics.

The coverage of the Schiavo tragedy is just the latest example of how conservatives have established a permanent media infrastructure that lets them push a button to start a public furor over virtually any issue of their choosing.

Powerful conservative media outlets – from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio and well-organized Internet bloggers – get the frenzy started.

Then, the increasingly timid mainstream media falls into line, at least during the crucial early days when political judgments are set, as occurred during the run-up to war with Iraq in 2002-03 and with the Swift Boat veterans’ attacks on John Kerry’s war record in the summer of 2004.

For the most part, liberals have chosen to sit out the media wars, with a few exceptions including the emergence over the past year of progressive AM talk radio stations.

Because of this media dynamic, there’s little downside risk for the conservatives when they do overreach.

For instance, the Bush administration has stumbled in making the partial privatization of Social Security the hallmark legislation of Bush’s second term. Bush’s approval ratings have slumped to below 50 percent in some polls.

Still, the Social Security privatization drive does not seem to have hurt Bush politically in any substantial or long-lasting way. In three consecutive national elections – 2000, 2002 and 2004 – in which Bush and many Republican candidates advocated Social Security privatization plans, they managed to come out on top.

But the conservatives have found occasionally – as occurred in the sad case of Terri Schiavo – that it’s still not easy to stampede the American people, especially on issues where the public has extensive personal experience and where old-fashioned American common sense can intervene. 

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