Starving for leadership

Democrats missed a golden opportunity to reclaim the "moral values" debate in the Terri Schiavo case.

By Arianna Huffington
Published March 29, 2005 6:13PM (EST)

This column is not about Terri Schiavo and the wrenching spectacle that has surrounded her tragic fate. May she rest in peace.

It is about congressional Democrats and how they once again pathetically misread what moral values mean in a political context. May they miraculously wake from their persistent vegetative state -- or it won't be long before they are receiving their political last rites.

Ever since November, Republicans (aided and abetted by a poorly worded exit poll) have not only succeeded in defining the last election as having been about moral values, they've succeeded in defining moral values. In the GOP's extraordinarily abridged moral dictionary, fighting against gay marriage is morally valuable; fighting against 12 million children living in poverty is not.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been going through the most embarrassing public identity crisis since Anne Heche couldn't decide if, when it came to the bedroom, she preferred surf or turf. They've been mastering the feeble arts of second-guessing themselves and ducking for cover.

While real political leadership is determining the direction the country needs to go and convincing the public to follow you down that road, Democrats keep choosing the path of least resistance. Party leaders have been sticking their fingers in the air, feeling which way the political wind is blowing, and then chasing after these zephyrs of public sentiment. Which is bad enough. But making matters much, much worse, they are consistently misreading the wind -- an affliction that has led to their being blown away in three straight elections.

The Schiavo case is a perfect example. Before the cards had even been dealt, Senate Democrats decided that the Republicans already held all the aces. So instead of calling Dr. Frist's bluff, they folded, sat out the hand, and headed into the kitchen to see what kind of sandwiches Felix was whipping up. Not a single Democratic senator formally objected to the pro forma voice vote that sent the Schiavo bill to the House, where, with a few notable exceptions -- especially Rep. Barney Frank and rising star Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida -- Democrats were nearly as compliant.

In an interesting twist, it turns out that Bill Clinton had a behind-the-scenes role in the party's decision to adopt a hands-off policy on the Schiavo debate. According to CBS News, the former triangulator-in-chief helped sway Schiavo bill backer Tom Harkin, "egging him on" to roll over and play dead -- an odious echo of his efforts to get John Kerry to come out in favor of all 11 state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. This kind of strategic calculation may have been all right in the mid-'90s, but not today, when the party is in desperate need of bold, decisive leadership.

So the Democrats punted, Frist, DeLay and Bush got their photo ops, and the reptilian Randall Terry was born again as a media figure. Then the polls started pouring in -- with each and every one showing that the vast majority of the American people thought the Republicans had wildly overreached, seeking a political advantage as opposed to acting out of concern for Terri Schiavo.

But the Democrats, having gone MIA, were unable to ride the tidal wave of public sentiment. Yet again. For years now, they have failed to grasp that when it comes to their core issues -- including providing affordable healthcare, protecting the environment, safeguarding Social Security, gun control and basic abortion rights -- they are on the same side of the fence as the majority of Americans.

Look, I understand why the Democratic powers that be didn't want to be seen as fighting to end Terri Schiavo's life. They've got enough problems without giving Karl Rove and his GOP image masters an executioner's song to sing in 2006. And, if the decision were up to me, I would not have voted to pull the feeding tube. As a mother, I deeply empathize with the plight of Terri's parents -- and don't see why, given their willingness to take over their daughter's care, they shouldn't be given that chance. But it wasn't my decision to make -- just as it wasn't Congress's.

And being steamrolled by the Republicans or dancing on Terri Schiavo's grave were not the only two options open to Democrats. If they hadn't been running around hiding from their own shadows, they would have easily found a larger moral frame in which to put the fight over Schiavo's fate.

If the Republicans insist on making the "culture of life" a federal issue, the Democrats should, by all means, let them. But they need to make sure that the national debate doesn't center on tragic anomalies like the Schiavo case but on the thousands of people whose lives are cut short because they lack access to decent healthcare or on the prolonged suffering of the millions of children living in poverty.

Instead of allowing themselves to be cowed by the fear of looking like they're coming down on the immoral side of the moral values debate, Democrats should snap out of it and demand that the president interrupt his next vacation and that Bill Frist hold another midnight session of Congress to address the moral disgrace of 45 million people with no health insurance and 36 million people living in poverty -- and, in doing so, reclaim the moral high ground.

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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