Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terri and Elian

As of this writing, it appears that liberal Democrats have succeeded in the effort to protect Michael Schiavo’s right to have his wife starved and dehydrated to death. While many of us will be praying for some sort of last minute miracle, it’s time to assess the political effects of this entire imbroglio.

When one looks for an historical parallel, the case of Elian Gonzalez immediately comes to mind. Consider the similarities.

– In both cases, the issue revolved around a person who was not competent to make their own decision. In the Gonzalez case, it’s because the person was a minor, in the Schiavo case it’s because the woman in question was severely brain-damaged.

– In both cases, relatives were legally empowered to make the key decision, but there was a dispute about which relatives should make the decision. In the case of Gonzalez, the mother had died trying to escape and get Elian out of Cuba and to the United States, while the father in Cuba wanted his son returned there. In the Schiavo case, her husband wanted to withhold food and water and let her die, while her parents and siblings wanted her to live.

– In both cases, the real issue was some deeper ideological divide. Liberals didn’t mind sending Elian back to Cuba because, whatever they might concede about the evils of the Castro regime, they retained a bit of the romanticism of 60s leftists and viewed Cuba as a country of universal health care and widespread literacy. Conservatives were unapologetic Cold Warriors. In the case of Schiavo, the issue is abortion, or more broadly how one views life. Conservatives see life as inviolable, while liberals stress the “quality of life.” Liberals argue that some people (badly brain damaged people, newborns who are severely handicapped) should be killed, an echo of the argument that a woman should be free to abort an “unwanted” child, lest the child have a lousy life.

– In both cases, both sides abandoned long standing, apparently principled positions. In the Gonzalez case, conservatives paid little heed to traditional family law, which said the closest living relative should decide the issue. Liberals, who would have supported the “rights of the child” if some fundamentalist Muslim wanted his daughter sent back to (say) Saudi Arabia, were happy to send little Elian back to Cuba.

In the Schiavo affair, conservatives in Congress intervened in an issue that they have long held should be left to the states, and to families. Liberals, for their part, had a long history of being advocates for the disabled, and for the protection of women from husbands who might do them harm. But not in this case.

But if the facts of the two cases are eerily parallel, how will the politics play out?

First, liberal Democrats “won” both times. They managed to send little Elian back to Cuba, and it appears, as of this writing, that they have enabled Michael Schiavo to kill his wife.

But the first victory was indeed a Pyrrhic one. The actions of the Clinton administration enraged the Cuban exile community in Florida. While that community has long been solidly Republican, the mobilization and hardening of attitudes around the issue certainly cost Al Gore more than the paltry 538 votes that would have put him ahead of George Bush in Florida.

Will enabling Terri Schiavo’s killing be equally damaging? We think it could easily be. First, it’s important to discount poll results from the mainstream media showing that a majority wants Terri dead. Those polls embody mainstream media assumptions and mainstream media language (a “vegetative state,” the notion that Terri’s defenders are motivated by politics), and of course get mainstream media results.

More relevant here is the fact that a bill attempting to rescue Terri passed the House just yesterday by a lopsided 203 to 58 vote. Members of Congress are responsive to constituents who know about and care about issues, and not to people who don’t care, notwithstanding that the latter group has given pollsters answers the mainstream media approve of.

Another indicator that the Democrats know this is a problem from them is the fact that while only 31% of Republicans failed to vote on the key motion (Roll Call 90), 50% of Democrats did. It seems the latter sensed that this issue was trouble.

Currently, the Democrats are talking about how to appeal to “red state voters,” and hoping that with the right kind of language, they can win over social conservatives. Hillary Clinton is resurrecting the claim that she wants abortions to be “rare” (if also “safe” and “legal”). Democrats want to claim they are “pro-life” too, even if they are also “pro-choice.”

The Schiavo case will serve as a vivid reminder for social conservatives that the problem with the Democrats is not that their rhetoric hasn’t been properly tweaked. The problem is that their values are all wrong.

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