Stay Focused

The last few days have seen an interesting, lopsided debate rankle American politics. This debate is one that pits the majority of the public against the majority of the country’s leadership.

Unless the polls are wrong, a majority of the people in this country believe Terry Schiavo should be allowed to die. There are many times when a single event, otherwise minor, becomes the focus of the nation’s attention. Rarely does it ever belong there. Terry Schiavo’s condition is a human interest story. Her plight is not that her husband is seeking to let her die, but that her medical condition is tragic. I find cases like these even more tragic when they serve as distractions. Members of Congress can interject their views all they want in this matter, but they have no business, as a whole, drafting legislation that seeks to undo the will of Florida’s legal system in this matter.

Along with the majority that believes Terry Schiavo should be allowed to die, there is a majority which believes Congress is serving its own political self-interests in the Schiavo matter. If it were true that Congress is an institution that responds to the will of the majority, then they would know better than to take up the mantle of righteousness in the name of Terry Schiavo. But one has to remember that Congress as a whole did not think up the bright idea of late night legislation to reinsert Schiavo’s feeding tube. The legislation taking this matter to the federal level is solely the result of the will of the majority party in Congress. In this matter, the Republican leadership no more answers to the will of the majority of Americans than does the Canadian Parliament.

The other day, Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut admonished the fact that the party of Lincoln “has become a party of theocracy.” The most extremist and combative aspects of conservative ideology now rule Washington. It is situations like Terry Schiavo’s that serve to remind us that they are actively trying to rule everything. From Congress to the White House, conservative politicians have been willing this past week to pander to the ultra right. Whether Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, President Bush and others in the federal government believe in principle that removing Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube is wrong, the fact remains they have no jurisdiction in the matter. Today the Supreme Court affirmed this by refusing to hear a plea from Schiavo’s parents to reinsert the feeding tube. In what will not go down as a momentous decision, it took one line of text and no dissenting opinion for the court to shoot down the appeal. What is important is that the system of checks and balances in our government has worked. By no means is this situation resolved, at least not until Schiavo is dead, and the reverberations will be felt for awhile, but it appears the Constitution, in the face of overzealousness, has withstood a rather useless attack.

But there is another issue that is also important. Along with the lambasting the Republicans have been taking from the media over the last few days, are attacks on the Democratic Party for not doing enough to stop the Schiavo legislation from going through.

To that, I ask, what could they have done? I understand that majority opinion in this country is against any action by the federal government. But this legislation had nothing to do with opinions or polls. The Republicans control Congress. They wanted legislation — useless legislation at that — and they got it. Instead of the Democrats having to defend themselves against Republican attacks of being obstructionist, they can now sit back and watch all the flak fly towards the GOP. The Democrats have been burned on issues like this before. Democrats are losing the abortion issue because the Republicans have successfully portrayed them as defending murder. Common sense dictates that the Democrats as a whole not get themselves locked into another losing situation, especially when nothing bad has happened to the rule of law in this country. There was never a chance this legislation would change the outcome in Florida. The state judiciary in Florida is not a maverick institution that prides itself on unique interpretations of the law. Their opinions were correct, and there was never any doubt that the federal judiciary would rule in similar fashion.

In addition, the Republicans are now faced with the possibility that this has become a benchmark moment for them. They have tested the limits of their authority, and it has less reach than they would like. I am glad that the GOP has reached its limit on something as minor as this, as opposed to an issue that is truly divisive.

The smartest thing the Democrats could have done in this situation is, for once, exactly what they have done. They saw a situation where legislation would pass that was destined not to pass any legal test — legislation that the Republicans would use as morally divisive if the Democrats took the bait and battled — and that if they did nothing, would have to defend nothing. This isn’t the PATRIOT Act Part II. The sky will not fall in because the opposition party decided to stay home. Many battles are still being waged where the outcome matters, most notably social security. People need to remain focused on the true perpetrators of this latest attack on the rule of law — the Republican leadership of Congress and the President of the United States. Anything less lets them off the hook.