How the GOP Lost Its Way Republicans' attempted intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo marked the moment when the GOP's influence crested and began to recede.
NPR logo How the GOP Lost Its Way

How the GOP Lost Its Way

When people get lost, they do it believing they are going the right way. It isn't until later that they realize they have made a bad turn.

So too with political miscalculations that become historical turning points. The error only becomes apparent to all in hindsight, well after it's too late to do anything about it.

The case of Terri Schiavo is a case in point. It marks the moment when a political movement of broad and deep significance crested and began to recede.

It has been exactly one year since Terri Schiavo died. She succumbed after her feeding tube was removed and other means of sustaining her life in a vegetative state were suspended. Her death brought a sad ending to years of struggle between her husband and her parents, much of it fought out in the courts.

That's the private, personal side of a story that went public when her case became a cause celebre for social conservatives. By early 2005, years of medical opinions and legal rulings had led to a final court order allowing Schiavo's husband and doctors to remove the means of life support. But as they prepared to do so, opposition among religious activists prompted congressional leaders to call members back from Easter recess.

Aroused by appeals from Schiavo's parents and various activists, the House and Senate passed emergency legislation returning the case to the courts. President Bush returned from his ranch in Texas to sign the bill into law.

For Tom DeLay and Bill Frist, the Republican majority leaders of the House and Senate, respectively, it was a moment of triumph. Both gave emotional speeches that might have been delivered as sermons from a pulpit. Frist, a medical doctor, added his professional opinion of Schiavo's condition, based on snippets of videotape. (Autopsy results showed Frist's diagnosis to have been largely fanciful.)

Whatever the personal and political motivations of these two men, the Schiavo debacle backfired for their party and their cause.

Within days, the federal courts had turned a deaf ear to the entreaties of Congress. This included the U.S. Supreme Court, which had refused to review the case before and promptly did so again. (DeLay responded by saying some of these federal judges ought to be disciplined.) With the matter back in Florida courts, the previous rulings were reaffirmed and the removal of the feeding tube followed.

Moreover, public opinion polls immediately showed that more than 70 percent of the American public thought Congress should have stayed out of it. This astonishing level of disapproval was unlike anything registered against Congress since the Republicans won control of both chambers in 1994. It was also the first stinging rebuke for the president and congressional leadership since they were swept back into power in the elections of 2004.

The Schiavo case reached its zenith of public interest in March 2005. At the time, the president was still basking in his re-election and in the renewed strength of larger majorities in Congress. He was talking about overhauling the Social Security system and then moving on to a rewrite of the tax code. Such fundaments as pensions, retirement benefits and even progressive taxation were open for revision.

In those early weeks of 2005, President Bush spoke freely about spending his political capital to get the things he wanted. His opponents seemed everywhere on the run, or at least on the defensive.

So it is hard to believe that the past 12 months have been so different from what the president and his allies envisioned. No one seems to have seen the huge wave of public disapproval rising up in reaction to the attempted Schiavo "rescue."

That failure to discern the will of the people may have been the first sign that the ruling party was not as attuned to its constituents as it had thought. Needless to say, there have been other signs since.

But the key here is the effect on confidence. At the time of the Schiavo incident, the ruling party was going forward with an air of certitude rarely seen in recent history Washington.

It's been said that one can know truth too well. If that's true for individuals, it's truer yet for groups. And surely it's truest of all for groups with a monopoly on power.

Schiavo did not knock this sense of righteous certainty out of the party, of course, but it did erect a sign that read: Too Far. And in the months ahead, this warning would prove prescient.

The next blow came with the collapse of the president's campaign to remake Social Security with personal accounts. The news from Iraq turned bad last spring after a winter of relatively encouraging events. Casualties were continuing and the troops were complaining about a lack of proper equipment. By late summer, support for the war was eroding badly even as gasoline prices soared.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit, followed by Hurricane Rita. New Orleans became a nightmare city. The president picked a crony to be a Supreme Court justice and the outcry was so great within his own party that the nomination had to be withdrawn.

By this time, the president's poll numbers had fallen down through 50 percent and even through 40 percent. And Congress was doing still worse, bedeviled by an influence scandal revolving around a lobbyist's gifts to Republican lawmakers. Both these conditions persisted into 2006, when the nation was distracted by stories about the vice president accidentally shooting a hunting partner and about the administration signing off on a deal allowing an Arab firm to run operations at six U.S. ports.

Suddenly the topics of conversation were not pensions and taxes but the need for a shakeup at the White House and a bid by some Senate Democrats to censure the president. Neither was likely to happen, in fact, but their prominence in conversation made it clear how much the agenda had changed in a year — and how completely the political momentum had been reversed.

And that reversal began with the Frist-DeLay decision to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo.

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