2005/04/02

Terri Schiavo vs Elian Gonzales

Well, old boy Jonah Goldberg is at it again, making points that I disagree with. His points tend not to be obviously wrong, they usually need some exploration and examination before we can dismiss them. So what can I say? Jonah's a good writer for me to beat up on.
BTW, I saw the comment "Can we beat up Jonah about the expansion of eligibility for join the Army? He can put on a uniform and fight in Iraq now!" We probably could, but the only people who would care are fellow progressives anyway. Here, Jonah disagrees with the notion that the legislative overreaching in the Terri Schiavo case will politically harm conservatives:

First, keep in mind that what has prompted the most recent bout of panic is the passionate — and legitimate — differences over the Terri Schiavo case. Just as hard cases make bad law, they also tend to make for bad analysis. Lots of people are pointing to the fact that the polls do not support Congress's decision to intervene on Schiavo's behalf (even as the nature of that involvement has been often wildly exaggerated). The Republican party has exposed itself, if these pessimists are to be believed, with a dangerous overreach that will haunt it for years.

Uh, not likely. Whatever you think of the legislative branch's involvement, it's doubtful the issue will be a political albatross for the GOP any more than, say, the Elian Gonzales scandal permanently tarnished the Democrats. Indeed, recall that the Clinton impeachment drive was far more deleterious for the GOP's standing in the polls over a far longer period of time, and if that effort did permanent damage to the Republican party, it's hard to find today. The federal government is run by Republicans for as far as the eye can see.

Was the Elian Gonzales case a matter of overreaching? Certainly it got people excitable, it prompted much hate and discontent towards President Clinton and Janet Reno, Clinton's Attorney General, certainly came in for her share of verbal abuse as well. There are extremely significant difference's in the two cases, though. One, the Gonzales case was not Clinton's idea. Elian was found at sea clinging to a raft. This was quite naturally seen as a dramatic moment and for his father, a patriotic Cuban who didn't object to Fidel Castro's rule over the island, to ask for his son to be returned was seen by "America the Beautiful" conservatives as an outrage. The seizure of Elian from his relatives in America was legally correct, but was seen as a betrayal of American values.
The Terri Schiavo case, on the other hand, was a case of Republicans President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Florida Governor Jeb Bush deciding to make a major federal case out of what should have remained a private family matter, a subject for the courts as opposed to being a subject for national debate.
Another problem is that the courts were very firmly on the side of the husband Michael Schiavo and against Terri's parents, the Schindlers. Republicans took the side of the Schindlers against the courts. In the Gonzales case, Clinton took the same side as the courts did. In both cases, Democrats stood for legal principles and the rule of law. In both cases, Republicans have stood for immediate political advantage, taking the easy, unprincipled and what they thought would be a popular position.

As I've mentioned in my occasional comments on the abortion issue, the Schiavo case for me boils down to "Who has the authority to make a final decision?" In both cases, authority cannot be split or shared. The final decision must be unambiguous and final. People can't "split the difference" and people can't reach a meaningful compromise. The fetus must either be brought to term or aborted, Terri could either hang onto life support forever or she could be allowed to perish.
The authority could have been placed in the hands of her parents, it was instead given to her husband. People have argued that as Michael had a relationship with another woman while Terri was in the condition of "Lights on, but nobody home", than he surrendered his right as a husband and authority should have instead gone to her parents. Law simply doesn't work that way. If the relevant law does not specify that adultery makes a husband ineligible to decide on his spouses fate, then Michael's adultery is legally beside the point. Michael was given the authority to represent his spouse and he was fully competent to exercise that authority. All the bitching and griping and whining and complaining about how he was unfit misses the point that legally, he never became incompetent to retain the authority to make the decision to withdraw Terri's life support. The fact that her life support was described as merely her being fed is irrelevant.
If people don't like his decision, then their only option is to rewrite the law to prevent a recurrence.

As far as the ultimate political impact of the Schiavo case goes, Jonah is correct that the impact may not amount to much of anything. What might make it matter is if the Democrats draw parallels, make explicit connections, present the Schiavo case as representing something larger, something that reveals something unpleasant and repellant about the Republican Party.
Winning a political fight is not enough. The victory must be exploited if it's to have any long-term impact.

No comments: