The Terri Schiavo case is an example of radical Bush Republicanism at its very worst. In spite of the fact that virtually all polls show that a substantial majority of Americans disagree with the GOP on this one, don’t be fooled; Republicans are doing exactly what they set out to do. One striking feature of this new Republican Party is its absolute willingness -- even eagerness -- to take get their hands dirty in order to achieve the desired results.
The most obvious goal is distraction. In particular, Tom DeLay’s legal and ethical issues are getting worse by the day and may come to a head soon. These issues are not only a matter of DeLay’s personal corruption, but go to the very legitimacy of this Republican Congress, which is a direct result of DeLay’s ability to redistrict Texas eight years early.
In addition, Social Security is proving to be harder to corporatize than previously imagined. If Republicans win on SSI (and they still might), it could prove to be a costly, even Pyrrhic, victory, costing them their congressional majority in 2006. Military recruitment is down, highlighting underlying popular resistance to the war of aggression in Iraq. And gas prices are expected to soar to $2.50 per gallon this summer. That’s an awful lot of substantive failure and misery that needs to be pushed off the front pages, even if the substitute story doesn’t make everyone love the GOP. But as we’ve seen time and again, universal popularity is not what they’re after; any campaign is worthwhile if it feeds the base.
That base is insatiable. It needs constant feeding. The thinking is that the self-styled pro-life forces will never forget the Party’s efforts on Terri Schiavo’s behalf, while the rest of us will be eager to forget this shameful political maneuvering as soon as it falls from the headlines. Speaking directly to his Christian fundamentalist base, George Bush said that he wanted to give Terri Schiavo “another chance at life,” even though the doctors who care for her say her cerebral cortex is liquefied. Her parents have indicated that they would authorize amputations, should they be necessary, to prolong her “life.”
Most disturbing of all, however, is a deeper goal, namely, the weakening of the courts. Obviously, the standing of the courts is seriously undermined when Congress intervenes in a particular court case. Such an intervention erodes the constitutional system of checks and balances specifically designed to protect against the abuses of power Republicans are perpetrating. This is an alarming precedent, opening up the possibility of virtually unlimited challenges to traditional constitutional firewalls by a power-mad party.
What is to stop Republicans from challenging other court decisions with laws unique to particular cases? We have already seen a rightwing Supreme Court write a one-off ruling in Bush v. Gore -- an opinion that explicitly warns that it is inapplicable to other cases -- thereby elevating George Bush to the presidency. And we know that the filibuster, built into the design of our form of government for the express purpose of slowing down a rash majority, is next on the list of targeted parliamentary restraints.
From most Americans’ perspective, it seems obvious that Terri’s husband and doctor are not only her legally designated guardians, but the most appropriate judges of her best interests. And yet as the media circus counts down this poor woman’s last days and hours, echoing the similarly shameful countdown to the war in Iraq, no one will be able to escape a visceral sense of complicity in her death -- certainly not the courts. We will not want to think about it, and not thinking through the implications of what is happening in front of our eyes, again, will be another signal victory for ends-justify-the-means Republicanism.
Big picture, Schiavo is just one more instance where George Bush, while seeming to take a beating (at least in the beginning of the campaign), is actually conditioning the public to accept -- and expect -- previously unheard of behavior. The Bush brothers and Republicans in Congress have succeeded in framing this charade not only as a public policy debate, but as a conflict between religion and secular government -- with the President of the United States coming down hard on the side of religion. This is reminiscent of the infamous incident where Bush, addressing a crowd of religious supporters on the subject of his faith-based initiatives, gave his answer to those who say these initiatives are an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. Waving a Bible over his head, he told the cheering crowd, “This is the rule book!”
I was raised in a fundamentalist religion, but I was taught that there is no inherent contradiction between religious belief and citizenship, because religion is outside the sphere of politics: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” But this new breed of fundamentalism sees it as their duty to remake our secular government, which insures religious liberty for all, in the image of their version of the Bible.
The religious right understands this perfectly. There is no doubt that they grasp the implications of the Schiavo case. And they will not forget.
This shameful campaign will only be a failure for Republicans if the rest of us vow with equal fervency that we will never forget Terri Schiavo.
Patricia Goldsmith is a member of Long Island Media Watch, a grassroots free media and democracy watchdog group. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.