Fault lines

The Schiavo case isn't a typical wedge issue.

Published April 3, 2005

Moderate voters, the people who decide elections in Florida and the country, spoke clearly during the final chapters of the 15-year Terri Schiavo drama.

A lot of political leaders failed to get the message. Many Democrats were determined to avoid taking a strong position. Many Republicans tossed aside their federalist and libertarian principles. They should be grateful this drama peaked 1 1/2 years before election time.

Poll after poll showed overwhelming support for Michael Schiavo's efforts to remove his brain-damaged wife's feeding tube. Opposition to government intervention in the family tragedy and legal battle crossed party and religious lines. A recent Time magazine poll found even a wide majority of evangelical Christians supported the removal of the feeding tube.

A lot of Republicans worry their leaders overreached on Terri Schiavo. The question is how long the controversy reverberates politically.

"The shelf life on this can be measured in weeks," predicted Republican consultant Bill Coletti. "I don't see somebody next summer using this as a rallying cry and making it a wedge issue that works."

Gov. Jeb Bush, who is now perceived by much of the nation as an ardent social conservative crusading to save Schiavo, also dismissed the political repercussions. Terri Schiavo's life and death, he said, transcended politics.

In fact, the spectacle that played out in Tallahassee, Washington, Pinellas Park and on cable TV was about as raw as politics gets. There's little indication it will ebb with Terri Schiavo's death.

Even as the drama exposed deep fault lines in the GOP among traditional conservatives and religious conservatives, party leaders such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay are seizing on the case to crusade against an allegedly activist judiciary.

But this is no standard wedge issue. Abortion and gay marriage may be theoretical and distant issues to most people. Dying and last wishes are not.

Tellingly, President Bush promptly lowered his profile on the matter after rushing back from his Texas ranch to sign a bill mandating another federal review of the case. His approval ratings dropped 7 points after he signed the legislation.

Some of some of the savviest and most ambitious Republican politicians in Florida either kept their distance (Attorney General and gubernatorial front-runner Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris) or opposed government intervention (U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite).

At least in the short term, there are obvious political winners and losers in this spectacle.

Some losers:

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson: Florida's lone Democrat elected statewide appeared terrified of doing anything that might antagonize "values voters."

Presidential prospects Hillary Clinton and John Kerry stayed far away from the Schiavo debate. As one of Schiavo's senators, Nelson could not do that, but he was left giving convoluted explanations for his views on congressional intervention while boldly declaring his support of living wills.

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez: Some Republican allies in Washington are wondering where Martinez's staff was on this issue. Couldn't they have found some token piece of moderate legislation for his first bill?

The newly elected Republican senator had talked as though he was determined to build a more moderate image after a nasty Senate campaign in which he pandered to extremists on issues such as gay rights. On Schiavo, Martinez again looked nothing like the centrist he supposedly was positioning himself to be.

Jeb Bush: There is little doubt of the governor's sincerity and personal anguish over the case. Nonetheless, many Americans saw the governor as decidedly out of the mainstream or, at worst, as a potentially dangerous zealot.

The governor didn't help himself by appearing at one point ready to seize Schiavo from the hospice. He even managed to antagonize some of the most ardent supporters for keeping Terri Schiavo alive when he ultimately decided against more drastic action.

Bill Frist: The Senate majority leader and heart surgeon is a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, but he made himself a lasting target for ridicule in this case.

People may not be talking about Terri Schiavo a year from now. But critics will never let voters forget how Frist suggested from the Senate floor that, based on his review of edited videotapes, he thought doctors may have misdiagnosed Schiavo.

Jesse Jackson: Had the Rev. Jackson shown any interest in the Schiavo case before last week, his arrival in Pinellas Park by white limo in the final hours of Terri Schiavo's life might have seemed less tacky. As it was, he looked like another camera-chaser exploiting a tragedy.

Florida: If the election debacle of 2000, Elian Gonzalez and other controversies hadn't already established the Sunshine State as the surreal capital of nutty tabloid tales, this drama has. Never mind that most of the circus surrounding the Pinellas Park hospice involved non-Floridians. The state's much-maligned image appears to have been sealed.

Some winners:

Daniel Webster: The socially conservative state senator from Winter Garden proved why he's one of the most respected statesmen in Tallahassee. The former state House speaker worked to craft narrow legislation to save Terri Schiavo. Characteristically, he did it without alienating or besmirching colleagues who disagreed with his deeply held beliefs.

Ultimately, nine fellow Senate Republicans killed Webster's efforts, but unlike others on his side, Webster never hinted that more drastic efforts to save Schiavo might be appropriate.

Jim Davis: The Democratic congressman from Tampa and candidate for governor has a reputation for chronic caution. But when Congress started to weigh in and countless Democrats ran for cover, Davis jumped to the forefront of the debate.

"This case is a tragedy, but what Congress is about to do is another tragedy," he said. "Today's Congress should be following the law, not trampling on the Constitution."

Two Democratic House colleagues, Robert Wexler of Boca Raton and freshman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, also argued strongly against the House bill and wound up in the national spotlight. Likewise, state Sen. Rod Smith, Davis' rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, stood out in Tallahassee for his impassioned opposition to intervening.

The judiciary: While the president, the governor and state and federal lawmakers were aggressively inserting themselves into the Schiavo controversy, the judiciary won out. Agree or disagree, the state and federal courts have been remarkably consistent. As much as some Republicans and social conservatives are eager to declare war on the judiciary, the fact remains that many of the judges disagreeing with Republican leaders were appointed by Republicans.

Faced with death threats and the might of the White House and Congress against him, Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer (a former Republican county commissioner) qualifies for a profile in courage award.

To a lesser extent, so might state Rep. Everett Rice, R-Treasure Island, who showed political instincts and backbone that will serve him well as a likely candidate for state attorney general. The former Pinellas sheriff did not hesitate to come to Greer's defense. He also opposed the Legislature's intervention.

The Florida Senate: Despite threats from some activists of retribution against Republican state senators who opposed intervening in the case, GOP Senate leaders emerged largely unscathed in the controversy.

Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, voted for the bill to try to keep Schiavo alive, but he chose not to strong-arm members to ensure it passed. In the process, the Senate lived up to its role as the deliberative legislative branch.

Former Senate President Jim King has a reputation for capitulating under pressure. But the author of Florida's 17-year-old Death with Dignity Act was rock-solid on his principles in this case and helped unify the nine Republican senators opposed to the latest legislation.

The bottom line as the cameras and protesters left Pinellas Park last week is that this drama produced far more losers than winners.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com