Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TODAY'S TERRI SCHIAVO POST....Richard Cohen thinks that Democrats are "cowering in some bunker" when it comes to Terri Schiavo. Why aren't they fighting back?

It's a good question, but I think the answer might not be the one Cohen suggests. I haven't thought this through completely, but mostly as a discussion topic I'd like to toss out the hypothesis that there's a pretty good reason for Dems to stay on the sidelines: because there are no major core principles of liberalism at stake here. Here are the various arguments that have been floating around Terri Schiavo:

  • Congress shouldn't pass laws directed at a single person. No, Congress probably shouldn't. On the other hand, let's be frank: I can think of circumstances where I'd be all in favor of this, and I'll bet you can too. Don't get me wrong: this was both a bad law and a politically craven one as well, but I'm not sure single-person legislation per se really contravenes any deeply held liberal principles.

  • The rule of law should be upheld. Sure, and it was. But passing legislation to change the law doesn't violate any principle of liberalism. What's more, Congress changes laws following adverse judicial rulings all the time. Again, the issue here is more that the law was aimed at a single, specific case, not that it was passed after a court ruling that conservatives disliked.

  • The federal government shouldn't intervene in state matters. Give me a break. Everyone has their own ideas of where the boundary should be drawn between state and federal law, but states rights has never been a big favorite among lefties. As a liberal standard bearer, this argument is ridiculous.

  • Florida law is substantively correct. Maybe it is. On the other hand, what if Florida law stated that all patients should be kept alive by all means necessary until they're declared medically brain dead unless they've made contrary wishes known beforehand clearly and in writing, witnessed and notarized? That might not be the way I'd write the law, but at the same time I don't see any major liberal impediment to it, either.

Now, there's no question that Republican reaction to Terri Schiavo has been nauseatingly opportunistic, aimed more at pandering to a small core of Christian conservatives than because of any real concern over how Florida law treats PVS patients. And with any luck, Republicans will pay a price for that.

Still, while it's possible that Democrats have passed up a golden opportunity to make hay over this, that's a tactical argument. On the basis of liberal principles, conversely, the issues at hand seem fairly modest.

In the end, I'm not sure I blame Democrats that much for declining to go out on a political limb and join Bill Frist and Tom DeLay in yet another poisonous round of the culture wars. It's exactly what conservatives want, and the liberal issues at stake here just aren't big enough to make it worth playing their game. Sometimes it's better to let the other side make fools of themselves without interfering.

Kevin Drum 2:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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