Political Pulse April 2005

The Power of the Polls

Senate Republicans need to separate the filibuster issue from the Terri Schiavo case.

Without polls, Bill Clinton might never have survived as president. When the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January 1998, official Washington was ready to declare the Clinton presidency over. "Is He Finished?" asked U.S. News and World Report. Many of Clinton's fellow Democrats felt betrayed by his behavior; few were willing to step forward and defend him—until the polls showed that most of the American people did not want the president driven out of office.

Without polls, Elian Gonzalez might still be with his Miami relatives. Congress was threatening to intervene in his case. "We're going to have hearings to try to find the truth, because there are a lot of questions out there," said Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, then the majority leader of the Senate. But polls showed that the American people thought the child belonged with his father and that politicians had no business getting involved.

Without polls, some politicians' attempts to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case might have succeeded. But in a Gallup Poll last month, three-quarters of Americans disapproved of Congress's getting involved in a private family matter. So President Bush backed down, saying, "Now, we'll watch the courts make their decisions." So did Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, who said, "I've done what I can do. I can't do more than what the law allows me to do."

Some Republicans have been threatening retribution against the judicial branch over the Schiavo case. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, vowed, "We will look at an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president." In a videotaped address to a conference called "Confronting the Judicial War on Faith," DeLay spoke of a "judiciary run amok."

"The response of the legislative branch has been mostly to complain," DeLay said. "There is another way, ladies and gentlemen, and that is to reassert our constitutional authority over the courts."

On April 4, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, made this controversial statement: "There may be some connection between the perception—in some quarters, on some occasions where judges are making political decisions, yet are unaccountable to the public—that it builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence."

Democrats, who have been in the awkward position of defending the use of the filibuster to stop President Bush's judicial nominations, now have a new argument. "Apparently, it's not enough for Republicans to rule the White House and Congress," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said last week. "They want power over the independent judiciary, too."

Kennedy added, "The Schiavo case cast a bright light on the dark forces behind the ... campaign" to bar filibusters against judicial nominees.

Republicans do not want people to view their effort to end filibusters against judicial nominees as an attack on the judiciary. For that reason, several key GOP leaders have been at pains to distance themselves from some of the more strident conservative rhetoric. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told reporters, "I believe we have a fair and independent judiciary today. I respect that." Vice President Cheney told the New York Post that he does not support retribution against judges. And Bush told reporters, "I believe in an independent judiciary. I believe in proper checks and balances."

Presented by

William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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