When Congress and President Bush intervened in the Terri Schiavo case, they insisted that their motives were not political. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, argued, "It has nothing to do with politics. It's disgusting to suggest it." He must be pretty disgusted with the American people, because in a CBS News poll, nearly three-quarters of respondents said that Congress acted for political reasons.
There is evidence of a backlash. A Gallup Poll taken just before Bush and Congress acted in the Schiavo case showed the president with a 52 percent approval rating. But in the Gallup Poll taken just after he signed the bill giving federal courts jurisdiction over the case, his rating fell to 45 percent. CBS News polls show a similar decline in Bush's ratings, from 49 percent in February to 43 percent after he signed the Schiavo bill.
Public opinion about the Schiavo case was very one-sided. In the CBS poll, two-thirds of Americans said that the woman's feeding tube should not be reinserted. More than 60 percent thought that the Supreme Court should not hear the case.
The strongest consensus was revealed on this CBS poll question: "Do you think Congress and the president should be involved in deciding what happens to Terri Schiavo?" Only 13 percent said yes. An overwhelming 82 percent said no. Large majorities of conservatives, Republicans, and churchgoers also said no, as did two-thirds of white evangelical Christians.
Among the minority of Americans who thought that Congress and the president should have been involved in the Schiavo case, Bush's job approval was 67 percent. The president's approval rating was just 39 percent among the huge majority who thought that politicians should stay out of it.
How could politicians have been politically motivated if they were doing the unpopular thing? Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., said after the House vote, "The reason I got engaged is, I had a lot of my constituents calling me and writing me, expressing grave concerns that this was a miscarriage of justice."
Intensity may have mattered more than numbers. House Republicans, who voted overwhelmingly for the bill, were apparently concerned about the possibility of facing a conservative primary opponent. House Democrats, who were split, may have been worried about facing a challenger next year who would charge, "You voted to kill Terri Schiavo."
We've seen this kind of situation before—five years ago, to be exact, in the Elian Gonzalez case. A lot of Americans were outraged at the idea that a child could be sent back to Cuba to live under Communism after his mother had died trying to deliver him to freedom. They angrily opposed the government's position, expressed by Attorney General Janet Reno. "The law is very clear," Reno said in April 2000. "A child who has lost his mother belongs with the sole surviving parent."
Most Americans agreed with Reno, according to the polls. But most Cuban-Americans wanted Elian to remain in the United States. They received moral support from some conservative politicians, including presidential candidate George W. Bush.
Courts upheld the government's decision to reunite the boy with his father. When his Miami relatives refused to surrender him, federal agents seized Elian in a raid. Sixty percent of Americans approved of the raid, according to Gallup.
The Republican leadership of Congress threatened to hold hearings. But Congress backed off. Two-thirds of Americans told Gallup they opposed congressional intervention in the Gonzalez case—almost the same proportion as those who opposed congressional intervention in the Schiavo case. The principle appears to be the same: Politicians should stay out of private family matters; the courts should handle family disputes.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush claimed he had no political motives in trying to get the feeding tube reinserted. He can't run for governor again, and he says he won't run for president. Yet, critics said that his failure to do more regarding Schiavo was motivated by politics. "He still has the power to take Terri into protective custody," a spokesman for her parents said. "He may not want to do that because of his public image and how that would look."
By defying the governor, the state Legislature, Congress, and the president, judges made themselves a juicy target. The Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition charged, "One of the issues that is driving this ... is judicial activism." Religious activists who claimed to be driven wholly by moral concern sounded awfully political. Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry vowed, "I promise you—if she dies, there is going to be hell to pay."
Democrats by and large stood aside, but liberals accused them of being too timid. There's no evidence that the issue has done Democrats any good politically. In a March 22 Gallup Poll, opinion of congressional Democrats' handling of the Schiavo case (28 percent approval, 42 percent disapproval) was about the same as opinion of congressional Republicans' actions (26 percent approval, 47 percent disapproval).
In the end, no one made political gains from the Schiavo case. Every move looked political and was, therefore, instantly discredited. The public's message was loud and clear: Politics should have been kept out of this.