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Deja Vu

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The strategies that both Republicans and Democrats employed to handle the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman, were clearly driven directly by what happened in the 2004 elections.

For Republicans, the strategy of growing their social- and cultural-conservative base rather than reaching for the middle was successful last November, and it provided a playbook for jumping into the Schiavo case, as well. The GOP jumped in despite the fact that 56 percent of 909 adults interviewed nationwide in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll last weekend thought that Schiavo's feeding tube should be removed. Only 31 percent thought that it should not be removed.

Even a majority of Republicans, by 54 percent to 35 percent, said that the tube should be removed and that Schiavo should be allowed to die. Likewise, a majority of people who attend religious services at least once a week thought the feeding tube should be removed.

Nonevangelical Republicans and those of the economic-conservative bent are rolling their eyes in disbelief at yet another example of their party's pandering to a single constituency group. But no one in the GOP seemed particularly surprised, except perhaps when President Bush flew back to Washington from his Texas ranch in the middle of the night to sign legislation shifting jurisdiction over the Schiavo case to the federal courts.

But Bush and congressional Republicans were banking on the belief that those who care intensely about the issue tend to be on the "pro-life" side. So, other Republican officials fell all over themselves pushing through an emergency bill directing the federal courts to step into the fight, effectively taking jurisdiction away from the Florida state courts. So much for the supposed importance of states' rights, federalism, and restricting the federal judiciary. Situational ethics wins again.

But Democratic decisions seem to be flowing from the 2004 results just as strongly, with the party apparently paralyzed by the fear of being perceived as taking the secular side of a values debate. Most Democrats, save House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, either avoided comment on the Schiavo case or tacitly supported the Republican decision to intervene.

The Democratic Party is so spooked by its 2004 losses that it seems incapable of exercising discretion by picking its shots -- incapable of, as Kenny Rogers used to sing, knowing when to hold 'em, knowing when to fold 'em, knowing when to walk away, and knowing when to run. Democrats might have been wise to fight over the Schiavo case, yet for the most part, they folded instead.

Democrats on Capitol Hill arguably have self-esteem problems to address. But their larger problem is not that they have the wrong values, it's that perhaps they have none at all. Democrats have spent so much time pandering to their own pet constituencies that they have lost the ability to look at issues through the eyes of rank-and-file Americans, people driven more by common sense and the Golden Rule than by rigid religious or ideological orthodoxies. They have rendered themselves speechless whenever an organized interest group hasn't told them what to say. They're afraid to simply oppose Bush in a knee-jerk fashion, and they're too out of touch to anticipate how mainstream voters might respond to a given issue.

The result is that a fairly large majority of the American people see Congress, the president, and both parties as dancing to someone else's tune, responding to the beliefs and value system of a minority. And they feel disenfranchised once again. A recent Gallup Poll put Congress's job-approval ratings back down into the 30s -- hardly record-low territory, but a level where things become more volatile and voters begin to give incumbents less benefit of the doubt in contested races.

This is not a time when either party has a lot to be proud of. In the face of everything that the Republican Party has professed to believe, GOP officials expanded federal judicial authority over a case that belonged in the Florida state courts and intervened in a matter in which legislatures ought not get involved.

A memo that was leaked after being circulated among GOP senators -- arguing that there would be political benefits from jumping into the Schiavo case -- simply stated a calculation that was already obvious to all. And capitulation by Democrats tells us that their party is not ready to lead and does not know where it stands, where it wants to go, or whom it wants to represent.

 
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