How the Private Became Political

Times Staff Writer

Frenetic negotiations among congressional leaders, a special weekend session and a hastily arranged trip back to Washington by the president in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case elevated a tragic personal issue into an extraordinary political drama.

But at bottom, the flurry of activity reflected an everyday fact of political life: When a powerful constituency cares passionately about something, all politicians -- whether Republicans or Democrats -- yearn to respond.

In this instance, the constituency was evangelical Christian conservatives. They played a pivotal role in reelecting President Bush and swelling GOP majorities in both houses of Congress in November, and they have become a voting bloc as essential to the GOP’s new dominance as labor unions and minorities once were to the Democratic Party.


And the pressure on Bush and Republican congressional leaders to respond in the Schiavo case was all the greater because, during the first three months of the president’s second term, social conservatives had become increasingly unhappy with what they saw as neglect of their concerns, such as banning same-sex marriage, in favor of issues pushed by corporations: changing bankruptcy laws, curbing medical malpractice awards and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

“Our issues aren’t on the front burner every day, but when they are on the front burner it’s on high,” said Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition. “This proves that Terri Schiavo was a front-burner issue.”

The very fact that the case of one woman in Florida and the family quarrel over her fate have reached the halls of Congress and captured the attention of the president reflects the power of the evangelical base in setting an agenda, said Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals. The Schiavo case, he said, showed that social conservatives were as consumed with the end of life as they were with life in the womb -- and that the politicians were following their lead.

Republicans’ desire to respond to the Schiavo case in a highly visible way was underscored Saturday night when the White House unexpectedly announced that Bush, vacationing at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, would fly back to Washington to sign the emergency legislation aiding Schiavo’s parents in their effort to keep her alive.

Schiavo -- who has had severe neurological damage since 1990 when a chemical imbalance stopped her heart and cut the oxygen supply to her brain -- has been at the center of a legal battle between her husband and her parents.

Her husband says Schiavo had told him that she would not wish to be kept alive under dire circumstances.


The case, first taken up by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and anti-abortion activists who viewed it as an issue aligned with their beliefs, has become a cause for evangelical conservatives nationwide because they see assisted suicide and related procedures as moral and religious issues of overriding importance.

Their commitment to the cause has been intensified by rising anger toward Schiavo’s husband and toward the Florida courts that sided with his position.

On Friday, the pressure on congressional Republicans escalated sharply when a state judge ordered the feeding tube removed and a federal judge ruled that Schiavo’s parents had no legal standing in the federal court system.

The legislation that is expected to win emergency approval over the weekend would give the parents standing in federal court, though it would not compel a federal judge to take up the case.

As a backdrop to the dramatic weekend deliberations were the political implications for several key players who could not afford to ignore the desires of the party base.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is considered a candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2008. Frist, a physician, pushed his support for action to the point of declaring -- on the basis of television footage -- that he thought Schiavo might recover.


Gov. Bush, who has said he would not run for president in 2008, is still considered a potential contender and has won accolades from evangelical leaders for his role in the case. He discussed the matter with his brother on Friday, and the president’s decision to move aggressively could further solidify the governor’s position with the party’s religious base.

For House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the case offered an opportunity to placate a key constituency and divert attention from his continuing ethics problems. DeLay had been avoiding attention much of last week but moved to the forefront of televised appearances Friday and Saturday.

He heralded the negotiations that led to a bipartisan agreement to let the special legislation come before the House and Senate on an emergency basis. And he took the opportunity to personally take on Schiavo’s husband.

But the overriding reason for the flurry of activity -- activity that could have little practical effect unless the federal courts agree to intervene -- was the now-established importance of the voters who were demanding action.

Schiavo’s case first entered the political arena in 2003, when Gov. Bush, besieged by petitions and e-mails from antiabortion activists, helped push through a state law to prevent doctors from removing Schiavo’s feeding tube. The law was overturned.

When other legal options seemed to run out -- and the Friday deadline for removing the feeding tube approached -- the governor contacted the state’s new Republican senator, Mel Martinez, to push the matter with Congress.


Social conservatives began lobbying the issue in Washington, but some exploded in anger late Friday when the House and Senate failed to reach an immediate agreement and seemed prepared to let the matter drop rather than disrupt their plans for the fast-approaching Easter recess. The message, as some conservatives saw it, was that GOP leaders were more interested in their personal political goals than the moral imperative of saving Schiavo’s life.

“There are a lot of folks who helped create Republican majorities that were pretty disgusted with what went down, and the inescapable reality was that while they were dithering the tube got pulled,” said Kenneth L. Connor, former president of the conservative Family Research Council and the lawyer who represented Gov. Bush in his efforts to keep Schiavo alive.

“That could have been avoided. The people who created this majority are interested in product, not process.”

The maneuvering was followed over the weekend by President Bush in Texas.

The president considered addressing the case for the first time on Friday, when, by coincidence, he visited Florida at the same time doctors were removing the feeding tube, said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who spoke briefly about the case with the president aboard Air Force One.

“The answer was not to do it, since the situation was so fluid with the House and the Senate and the legal proceedings,” Feeney said.

Feeney, who backs the measure, said the matter carries some political risk for Republicans but that televised images in the coming days of a dehydrated and starving Schiavo might spark “an epiphany for a lot of Americans who are undecided or not paying attention to these issues.”


Evangelical leader Cizik predicted that the Schiavo case would be among the first of many to present similar issues.