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‘Culture of Life’ Issues Split GOP

Times Staff Writer

Over a roller-coaster week, the Terri Schiavo case demonstrated both the political gains religious conservatives have achieved over the last generation and the challenges they still face in building a consensus for their agenda.

The aggressive intervention by President Bush and congressional Republicans in the conflict underscored their commitment to social conservative causes, while the muted, hesitant response from most Democrats highlighted their uncertainty about handling values issues after the 2004 elections.

Yet as legal and political options for extending Schiavo’s life dwindled, so did public support for Washington’s involvement in the dispute, according to several national polls. In a CBS News survey, opposition was so widespread that even decisive majorities of Republicans, conservatives and white evangelical Christians said Bush and Congress should not have intervened.

To many analysts, the resistance to Washington’s role illustrated the challenges Bush and other social conservatives face in forging consensus for a “culture of life” agenda that includes issues such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research and end-of-life cases.

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“It is difficult to build a culture of life that covers more than just a handful of issues,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics. “And the more types of issues you try to include under that framework, the more difficult it becomes.”

In a nation accustomed to bitter divisions over cultural issues, the Schiavo dispute may have unexpectedly illuminated a point of consensus.

Although a core of social conservative activists passionately embraced the cause of extending the Florida woman’s life -- and many Americans felt conflicted about her fate -- the case seems to show the limits of public tolerance for political involvement in such intimate decisions.

“My sense is this is one issue where everybody understands the other point of view,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. “But clearly people don’t want government being involved in decisions like this.”

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Operatives from the two parties divided predictably on the controversy’s long-term political effect. Some Democrats said they expected Bush and congressional Republicans would be hurt by the public recoil against Washington’s role, while most Republicans said the issue was unlikely to cause lasting damage and could help the party by motivating its most ardent supporters.

But many on both sides agree that the emotional confrontation -- and the constellation of similar issues developing from advances in medicine and science -- will reinforce the shift from economic interests to cultural values as the principal force unifying each party’s electoral coalition.

“We have moved from an alignment that is primarily based on class to one that is primarily based on culture,” said Mark Mellman, the pollster for 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). “And one of the consequences of that change is that the issues we are talking about are not easy to compromise.”

As the options diminished for Schiavo’s parents in their legal battle to keep her alive, some social conservatives urged Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to take further action, even if it meant violating court orders. But many acknowledge that Republican leaders in Washington and Florida have demonstrated a powerful commitment to Christian conservatives by pursuing the case so ardently.

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“There are some on the right who feel that Gov. Bush and President Bush have not gone far enough,” said Gary Bauer, a leading social conservative. “But quite frankly, it’s impressive to see what they were willing to do on an issue where fairly early on it was obvious that the general public is divided at best.”

The case measures not only the rising influence of social conservatives in the GOP, but also their broadening political strategy. And the controversy is likely to stand as a milestone in efforts by the president and other Republicans to present much of their social agenda as part of a culture of life.

President Bush and other GOP officials, echoing language from religious leaders, increasingly apply that phrase to their views on issues revolving around the beginning and end of life -- such as their support for banning abortion and opposition to embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia.

Many Democrats see the effort to link these issues as a back-door attempt to undermine support for legal abortion by implicitly tying it to unsettling practices such as euthanasia. Yet the sharp reaction in polls against federal intervention in the Schiavo case suggests that many Americans, even many conservatives, view these issues less in philosophical than pragmatic terms and do not hold opinions that activists on either side would consider consistent.

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“It is real simple: There is not one culture of life set of opinions,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Views about abortion are different than about end-of-life issues -- and certainly very different than how people feel about capital punishment.”

Green, of the University of Akron, said: “While there may be deep divisions over when life begins and when it ends, there does seem to be this pragmatic consensus that these sorts of things ought to be settled as much by individuals and as much locally as possible.”

Most political strategists in both parties agree that the specific controversy over Schiavo is likely to fade from public attention long before it can influence the 2006 congressional elections, much less the next presidential race.

Yet the controversy adds another piece to the mosaic that illustrates the two parties’ cultural priorities -- and provides cues to voters who have increasingly sorted between Democrats and Republicans based on their own cultural views.

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Democrats never developed a clear message on the Schiavo case, with the party’s House leaders dividing in their votes and few party leaders making strong statements. But many Democratic strategists believe the party could benefit among moderate swing voters who believe Republicans overreached in the matter. Some Democrats noted that in several surveys last week, Bush’s approval rating slipped to 45% or below -- among his worst -- while the marks for Congress skidded under 40%.

“The Republican Party traditionally has been the party opposed to the expansion of the federal government,” said Mellman, the pollster for Kerry. “Now, across a whole range of issues, they have shown a commitment to expanding the reach of the federal government into personal life beyond which anybody has contemplated before.”

Although some libertarian conservatives raised similar concerns, several GOP strategists close to the White House said they doubted the Schiavo case would hurt the party. In part, that reflects their view that even many swing voters who resist some of Bush’s policies support him because they consider him a strong and charismatic leader.

But it also reflects a belief among some GOP strategists that the case will energize the Republican base for 2006. And despite public resistance to federal involvement in this instance, these strategists think the overarching culture of life argument ultimately places Democrats in an untenable position.

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“When you take [Democratic] opposition to partial-birth abortion at the beginning of life, and [acceptance of] pulling plugs at the end of life, you begin to get in a danger zone,” said one GOP strategist close to the White House. “It could be that this case reinforces a larger impression ... of the Democratic Party.”

For now, the clearest message from most Americans may be that they want political leaders to back away from a case that the public sees less as a philosophical touchstone than a private tragedy.

“I think the vast majority of Americans ... thinks this is a very difficult situation,” said Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush’s reelection campaign. “They are glad they don’t have to make the decision that is involved, and they don’t see it as something they want to be forced to have a political dialogue about.”


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