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.
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
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
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.
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,
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.