Terri? Terri who?

Republicans in Congress thought the Schiavo case offered them a no-lose political opportunity. Are they finally figuring out that they were wrong?

By Tim Grieve
Published March 25, 2005 9:03PM (EST)

Are they finally figuring it out?

Republicans in Congress rushed headlong into the Terri Schiavo case based on promises -- from the inside and the outside -- that it was "a great political issue" for them that would appease their supporters on the religious right while forcing the Democrats to align themselves with death. It was supposed to be a win-win situation for the GOP, but it hasn't worked out that way. The polls show that a substantial majority of Americans oppose congressional intervention in the Schiavo case. And in just one week, George W. Bush's approval ratings have dropped seven points, to the lowest level of his entire presidency. The Republican National Committee says it's because Bush is tackling "tough issues" like Social Security and energy policy. But with Terri Schiavo dominating virtually every minute of TV news this week, it's hard to think that Social Security and energy policy are driving Americans' views of their president. It's all Terri, all the time, and the public isn't comfortable with what it's seeing.

Only the religious right was happy with what Congress and Bush did, but now it's not happy at all. If nearly 70 percent of the American public thinks that Bush and Congress did too much, the remaining 30 percent think they didn't do enough. If Bush's brother doesn't take the law into his own hands in Florida, he's a modern-day Pontius Pilate. If Republicans elsewhere don't find some way, somehow to save Schiavo, Operation Rescue's Randall Terry says there will be "hell to pay." The Republicans have inserted themselves into the Schiavo case, and now they're the ones stuck in the middle.

Maybe that's why things have gotten so quiet in Washington. As the Chicago Tribune notes, "There was no rush to the television cameras" when the Supreme Court rebuffed Congress and Schiavo's parents Thursday. "There were no Washington political maneuvers. There was, in fact, barely a word of public reaction by President Bush or the leaders of Congress who were so quick to intercede in the matter only days ago." The Schiavo case? What Schiavo case? A "senior Republican official close to congressional leaders and the administration" tells the Tribune: "There is a realization that it looks very probably like Terri Schiavo will pass away. It's been a significant debate, but this debate is over for the remainder of the year. We do have a very full agenda."

Yes, a full agenda, an agenda that will include confirmation hearings for Bush's judicial nominees in the Senate and another debate over stem cell research in the House. A week ago, the Republicans who control Congress might have been looking forward to those proceedings as a chance to win some fights in the culture war. Tom DeLay was salivating over the prospect of using Terri Schiavo as an icon and a battle cry for the religious right. Now aides to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are insisting that there's "no link" between Schiavo and the debate over Bush's judicial nominees, and the Republican leaders have to be cringing when they hear anti-abortion activists girding their loins to fight over legislation that would ease Bush's restrictions on stem cell research. The deputy director of anti-abortion activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says he looks forward to having the chance to "defeat" the stem cell legislation. "Then," he says, "we can set aside this silly obsession and concentrate on things that are actually working for patients."

But like the right to die in peace, stem cell research is a "silly obsession" shared by a lot of Americans. If the Republicans are reeling now from the reaction to their Schiavo shenanigans, they can't be too anxious to move into another area where the demands of their supporters on the religious right conflict so sharply with the desires of the general electorate.

You can let the people see behind the curtain now and again. But if the GOP keeps that curtain open much longer, the public is finally going to see who's behind it. When that happens, all those middle-of-the-road folks who voted for Bush because they think he'll keep them safe might begin to have second thoughts about voting for a Republican next time around. Maybe it's happening already: In the USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released Friday, the number of Americans who identified themselves as Democrats ticked up by five percentage points.

John Cole, a Republican who voted for Bush in 2000 and again in 2004, had this to say on his blog Friday morning: "We were warned about the growing power of the theocrats, and we ignored those warning us. Hell, I derided them and chided them at every opportunity. The day of reckoning is here, and it is going to be of Biblical proportions. And I only hope that many of the Republicans in Congress, who like me were playing with fire and brimstone, begin to recognize it."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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