Spinning Schiavo

Polls show that the GOP's actions are at odds with the views of mainstream Americans. The right-wing response? Criticize the polls.

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 24, 2005 1:14PM (EST)

Back in the Clinton impeachment era, the more emotional and agitated conservatives got about the topic, the further they found themselves from mainstream public opinion. The same thing is happening now with the Terri Schiavo episode. Stunned at how few Americans side with them on the right-to-die case, and how Congress' intervention has turned into a legal, political and public relations setback, right-wing critics online have been lashing out -- and theyre leaving the facts and reason far behind. (Did we mention that this reminds us of the impeachment days?)

Yesterday, a desperate consensus began to emerge that the real problem wasnt that an overwhelming, 63-28 percent majority of Americans side with Michael Schiavo in his decision to remove his wife's feeding tube; it's that ABC News was "shameless" and "incompetent" in wording what critics called a "push poll" that produced those results. Yet even after stumbling their way through polling analysis, partisan critics refused to address this salient point: ABCs findings were completely in line with every other poll taken regarding the Schiavo case. Truth is, the only real debate about public opinion is over just how lopsided the margin is in favor of keeping the feeding tube out.

Yet Mickey Kaus insisted the offending ABC poll and its "overwhelming anti-tube sentiment" were "surprising." Really? Last week, a previous ABC poll found 87 percent of Americans would want to die if they were in Terri Schiavos condition. Why, just seven days later, would it be surprising that 63 percent think Schiavos feeding should remain disconnected? Its only "surprising" if youve paid no attention to previous polling data on this issue -- or if you simply refuse to acknowledge it. For instance, in March 2003, Fox News polled on the Schiavo story (it was making headlines in Florida back then) and asked what people would do if they were Schiavos guardian. By a huge margin of 61-22 percent, respondents said they would remove the feeding tube. Asked to reverse the scenario, an even larger percentage, 74, said they would want their guardian to remove a feeding tube.

Those kinds of numbers dont offer conservatives much solace, so they have set out to discredit them. Specifically, they have faulted the ABC poll question for describing Schiavo as being on "life support." Critics such as Michelle Malkin cried foul, insisting that Schiavo is "not on 'life support' and has never been on 'life support.'" She suggested it was only because ABC had misled people that so many of them sided against pro-life Republicans in Congress.

Three points for Malkin and her online band of would-be medical scholars:

1. The phrase "life support" came straight out of court documents from the appellate court decision in Florida, as in, "In this case, the undisputed facts show that the guardianship court authorized Michael to proceed with the discontinuance of Theresa's life support."

2. Dr. Jay Wolfson, the court-appointed doctor who examined Schiavo for months, recently noted during a Washington Post online chat: "In Florida and elsewhere, including according to the guidelines published by the American College of Cardinals, feeding tubes are defined as 'artificial life support.'"

3. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that, legally, tube feeding is no different from other forms of life support in that it too, represents "life-sustaining treatment."

Also, regarding the Fox News poll from 2003 which found 61 percent would remove Schiavos feeding tube, heres how she was described in that poll question: "Terri Schiavo has been in a so-called 'persistent vegetative state' since 1990. Her eyes sometimes open, but doctors say she has no consciousness." Note that even with the more descriptive language and the absence of "life support," the poll produced almost exactly the same results as this weeks ABC survey.

But all the right-wing chatter about push polls became irrelevant late yesterday when CBS released its own poll which illustrated, yet again, that a huge majority side with Michael Schiavo, 66 to 27 percent. (Note the numbers are nearly identical to the ABC poll.) Additionally, in this age of bitter partisan divide, it seems one of the few things on which Americans agree -- besides the fact that Terri Schiavo should be able to die in peace -- is that the legislative and executive branches were wrong to get involved. According to the CBS survey, 82 percent think Congress and the president should not have intervened. That includes 68 percent of white evangelicals. Worse for the GOP, 74 percent think the action was done in order to "advance a political agenda."

The bottom line, according to the CBS poll: In the wake of the Schiavo controversy, approval ratings for Congress (34 percent) and President Bush (43 percent) have plummeted to new lows.

How are Malkin and friends going to spin that?

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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