Political crackup

By intervening in the Schiavo case, Bush moved the religious right into the heart of the GOP. Now there will be hell to pay.

Published March 31, 2005 7:38PM (EST)

The Bush administration doesn't have a faith-based initiative; it is a faith-based initiative. When President Bush rushed back to the White House from his Crawford, Texas, ranch to show his urgency to sign the congressional bill on Terri Schiavo, who died Thursday at 41, he demonstrated his faith in the infallibility of his political strategy. Just months earlier in the 2004 presidential election he had proven its efficacy. By joining the flag to the cross, Bush's campaign linked the war on terrorism to the culture war. Under these banners Bush marched as the crusader king against barbarian hordes without and within.

In unprecedented numbers evangelical Protestants and conservative "faithful" Catholics flocked to the polls to vote for him. Ballot initiatives in 11 swing states against gay marriage helped magnetize these constituencies. By a simple symbolic gesture in the Schiavo case he would become the transcendent holy warrior again, suddenly lifted by "values" from the slough of despond he had found himself in over his Social Security privatization scheme. It never dawned on him or his Cardinal Richelieu (Karl Rove) that the polls, like the heavens, would come crashing in on him.

The entry of a host of political actors transformed the private tragedy into a public drama. Its grotesque unfolding has revealed scenes of ambition and hypocrisy, the inner politics of religious fanaticism, and the limits of the Republican strategy that was launched by Richard Nixon and has now reached its apotheosis under George W. Bush.

It was almost inevitable that the biographies of the politicians using the Schiavo case as a platform would be examined for their own decisions about the medical care of their family members or patients. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, bedeviled by ethical scandals, forced the bill through the House, while issuing medical bulletins that Schiavo "talks [and] laughs [and] expresses likes and discomforts," and comparing his political embattlement to the effort to reattach her feeding tube. In 1988, according to the Los Angeles Times, DeLay decided along with other members of his family to pull the plug on his father, Charles Ray DeLay. There was no chance he would recover from a tram accident and would "basically be a vegetable," according to DeLay's aunt. The instruction posted on his chart read: "Do not resuscitate." DeLay filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the tram manufacturer and settled for $250,000, after which he became a leading opponent of such lawsuits.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., who offered a positive diagnosis of Schiavo's recovery on the basis of having viewed clips of videotape and called for her "rescue," had as a doctor pulled the plug on a "regular basis," his staff acknowledged. And in 1989, Frist published a book, "Transplant," in which he stated that anencephalic infants, suffering the same condition as the cortex-dead Schiavo, should be classified as "brain-dead."

Even the Franciscan Brothers of Peace, a ministry numbering only 10 monks, two of whom have appeared as personal counselors to the Schindlers, Schiavo's parents, confronted a crisis when the founder of their group suffered a heart attack and severe brain damage. He was kept alive through a feeding tube, but in 2003, after a dozen years, the monks decided to withdraw his life support. Their inconsistency in doing one thing while encouraging others to do another is best left for them to explain. More important, their presence is a small indicator of a larger political crackup.

Bush believes that he won his reelection in great part on "values" and that all he needs to do to refresh his power is to invoke them. But in signing a private bill by Congress that could not stand constitutional scrutiny for the sake of gratifying a faction of the Republican base, he has exposed and inverted the raw politics of the culture war. Instead of being blinded by the light of his shining faith, the public was repelled by what it saw as crass exploitation.

After a week of damage, the White House was quietly leaking to the press that Bush had not wanted to return from Crawford after all. His effort to distance himself from the corrosive Schiavo issue had the effect of depicting him as ambivalent and indecisive -- the negative image he had sought to project of John Kerry.

Bush had no instinct that he was overreaching. He did not grasp that the case would become for the Republican Party something like what the gay marriage decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has been for the Democratic Party. In both incidents the parties have been pushed to their marginal bases. Bush's problem is that he has helped move the religious right to the heart of his party.

Bush's strategy was early formulated by Nixon, who sought to absorb discontented Southern Democrats and urban ethnic Roman Catholics into the Republican Party. Both traditional Democratic constituencies were alienated by the civil rights movement and the liberalization of social mores, including demands for women's rights, among the younger generation. (Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace had initially gathered support from these disaffected groups with a classic pseudo-populist appeal tinged with racism.)

A year after Nixon's election, one of his political strategists, Kevin Phillips, published "The Emerging Republican Majority," laying out the details of how to realign the coming cycle of American politics. In the South, the Republicans should not oppose civil rights but enforce them, which would prove "essential if southern conservatives are to be pressured into switching to the Republican Party." In the North, as the Democratic Party became "a vehicle for Negro advancement," Republicans should build "a new populist coalition" around law and order and against "experimental residential, welfare and educational programming."

Thus Nixon's "silent majority" strategy used what was euphemistically called the "social issue" to unite Southern Baptists and conservatives with Northern Catholics. The 1972 election appeared to fulfill his plan. While Nixon carefully assimilated these constituencies, the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, was overwhelmed by raucous minorities, women's liberationists and antiwar protesters, whose chaotic behavior only illustrated the points Nixon was making. (According to Vice President Spiro Agnew, the Democratic Party was the party of "acid, amnesty and abortion.") But Watergate short-circuited Nixon's strategy. And his successor, Gerald Ford, was a rock-ribbed Republican who believed in the Equal Rights Amendment and was pro-choice on abortion. It was hardly surprising that he drew a primary challenge in 1976 from the right and its new champion, Ronald Reagan, that he barely managed to survive.

In 1980, Reagan anointed the religious right as ministers of the "social issue." "You can't endorse me, but I endorse you," he told the Religious Roundtable. The Reagan White House helped direct the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, radically altering its theological positions. The SBC had previously upheld the right of abortion and the strict separation of church and state, and was against mandatory prayer in schools. By 1982, all these tenets had been reversed.

In 2004, evangelical Protestant churches and conservative Catholic bishops were crucial in mobilizing voters on Bush's behalf. Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico were among at least three states that tipped to him under their influence. For the Catholic bishops, Kerry represented their worst nightmare -- a liberal Catholic as the most powerful man in the world -- and they donned inquisitors' robes to issue maledictions that he should not receive Communion.

In the beginning of his involvement in the Schiavo case, Bush acted on faith that it was a political gift. Why not? The politics of "values" had always enabled him to gain the offensive. For Reagan it had been morning again in America. Now it would be deathwatch in America. But Bush miscalculated the public response and lost control. Bush isn't using the religious right; it is using him.

The culture war has imploded inside the Republican Party. The religious fanatics and political freebooters who have flocked to the Schiavo deathwatch can never lose, no matter how extreme their pronouncements. Schiavo has given the religious right an invaluable lever with which to pressure Bush and the Republicans, who can never fully satisfy its demands if they are to sustain a national majority. The inviolability of marriage, states' rights, limited government, respect for the law -- these conservative principles must be cast aside in the struggle for power. Moreover, the Catholic right, a minority within both the American church and the religious right, has used this event to flex its muscles at evangelical Protestants as never before.

The battle over Schiavo is only proximately about Schiavo. The more spectacularly ghoulish the antics surrounding the Florida hospice, the more threatening the message being sent to Bush. A bigger prize looms. The shadow of political blackmail hangs over Bush's Supreme Court nominations. Bush's appointment of justices who meet the approval of the religious right, even if he had intended to appoint them all along, must be interpreted as its triumph in the Schiavo struggle. If he flouts its will, there will be hell for Republicans to pay. Bush has set himself up for appearing terrorized.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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Gay Marriage George W. Bush John F. Kerry D-mass. Karl Rove Republican Party Ronald Reagan