Will the GOP Need Life Support?

Glenn Reynolds explores the political fallout of the Terri Schiavo case in, of all places, Salon magazine. (An odd venue for a “conservative pundit.”) The piece is entitled, “Will the GOP need life support?

Schiavo hysteria certainly has some Republicans in its grip. Bill Bennett wrote that state law doesn’t deserve our respect if it conflicts with natural law. Bennett went on to urge Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to risk impeachment by violating the orders of the Florida Supreme Court. Fox News’ John Gibson was less measured. “Just to burnish my reputation as a bomb thrower,” he wrote last Friday on the Fox News Web site, “I think Jeb Bush should give serious thought to storming the Bastille.” In other words, Bush should consider sending police in to remove Schiavo from the hospice and reattach her feeding tube. “The point is, the temple of the law is so sacrosanct that an occasional chief executive cannot flaunt it once in a while, sort of drop his drawers on the courthouse steps and moon the judges, as a way to protest the complete disregard courts and judges have shown here, in this case, for facts outside the law,” Gibson wrote.


The dissent on the right — and most of the critics quoted above have been vocal supporters of President Bush, and the war — has led some people (including me) to wonder if the Republican coalition is going to split in the face of this abandonment of principle, especially as the national-security glue that has held the coalition together weakens in the face of success in Iraq. Some are even agitating for that result. I think it just might happen.

Republicans like to point out that you have to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything. The leadership, at least, of the Republican Party has abandoned the principles of small government and federalism that it used to stand for. Trampling traditional limits on governmental power in an earnest desire to do good in high-profile cases has been a hallmark of a certain sort of liberalism, and it’s the sort of thing that I thought conservatives eschewed. If I were in charge of making the decision, I might well put the tube back and turn Terri Schiavo over to her family. But I’m not, and the Florida courts are, and they seem to have done a conscientious job. Maybe they came to the right decision, and maybe they didn’t; this is a hard case. But respecting the courts’ role in the system, and not rushing to overturn all the rules because we don’t like the outcome, seems to me to be part of being a member of civilized society rather than a mob. I thought conservatives knew this. Before things are over, they may wish they hadn’t forgotten.

Some activists — like Bill Quick — want to set up a MoveOn-type organization, only with the goal of dragging the Republican Party in a small-government direction. Others are threatening to vote Democratic next time. More, I suspect, will remain Republicans, but less committed ones: less likely to donate, volunteer, or turn out to vote. A Republican Party that was winning elections by landslide margins might not mind that. But I don’t think that today’s Republican Party has that luxury. The Schiavo legislation looks like that classic political misstep, a move that’s dramatic enough to upset people, but not dramatic enough to satisfy the hard core. (Bush is now being savaged by pro-lifers for not doing enough.) In the end, I suspect it would have been better to stick to principle. It usually is.

Indeed. Political parties have certainly split before along similar lines. The emergence of the Republicans as a major party occured when the Whigs split over slavery. More recently, the emergence of the Republicans as a majority party came partly because they were able to more-or-less permanently convince social conservatives to leave the Democratic Party.

The modern Christian Conservative movement became a political force with the 1980 campaign and the election of Ronald Reagan. At the time, these people were a minority within the GOP. Steadily, though, they emerged as the dominant force in the party, mostly because they were energized enough to take over from the grass roots, winning elections to school boards, state legislatures, and building the network necessary for winning higher offices. The economic conservatives, the so-called “Rockefeller Republicans,” have never been very good at that. Instead, successful businessmen became politicians in mid-career, running for the House or Senate as their first attempt at winning public office. While social moderates are likely the majority even among Republicans, we’re not particularly well mobilized.

There does not seem to be a viable third party on the horizon, so the alternative for Republicans alienated by the social conservatives is to either sit things out or to vote for the Democrats. If the face of the Democrats is Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton, though, I simply can’t see a sizable number of the folks that voted to re-elect Bush making that leap. Sitting it out is more likely, although just barely. Most Republicans realize that not voting is the same as voting for the Democrat. And, again, if the Democrat is Hillary Clinton, that’s unlikely to be very palatable. So, unless there is a serious shift to the center by the Democrats, I see little punishment at the polls for the GOP.

Joe Gandleman disagrees, arguing that “GOP bigwigs should be reading and thinking” about this piece and urges readers to “email it to members of the GOP.”

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Joyse says:

    I don’t know if this has anything to do with what you were talking about, but fighting so hard for Terri made me wonder why our government isn’t fighting this hard for the rest of us. Do we have to be brain dead to get help in health care and protection by the government? Are we, the over 44 million not worthy of the same involvement by our government to help us stay healthy, or even get healthy?

  2. whatever says:

    Few people will remember this case in six months, including me. The ones who do and will vote on it won’t be enough to swing an election for dog catcher, so I think you are being a little too hopeful in your analysis.

  3. anon says:

    Yeah, this is a republican thing: Jessie Jackson, Ralph Nader, 50% of the democrats who voted on the case.

    You are seeing this as republican/democrat while I don’t think this turns out this way. What will this do to Christian blacks, for example, who typically vote democratic. I think there is no clear answer.

    If anything this is upsetting libertarians, and no one likes them anyway.

  4. reliapundit says:

    The GOP is the BIG TENT PARTY now; therefore there’s going to be more intra-party debate in the GOP than in the Democrat Party. DO NOT CONFUSE THAT FOR FAULT-LINES! It is vitality, not morbidity!

    And let’s face it: listening to Rice and Schwarzeneggar and Pawlenty and Santorum debate each other is ALWAYS GOING TO BE A LOT more interesting than listening to Sharpton and Kucinich and Kerry debate Hillary!

    AND THEN THERE’S THIS: the polls ALWAYS misunderestimate Bush.

  5. wavemaker says:

    Gee, realipundit, although I agree, I’m having trouble squaring your comment here with what you emailed me last week when I tried to explain the law part of this case to you — and you said “leave me alone.”

    Once again, James, I share your view…Monday’s post, http://www.screenshogblog.blogspot.com/2005/03/on-morality-and-hard-cases.html.

  6. Just Me says:

    “There does not seem to be a viable third party on the horizon, so the alternative for Republicans alienated by the social conservatives is to either sit things out or to vote for the Democrats.”

    Well apparantly there is currently a third option, at least among the blogsphere, and that is to demonize the Christians.

    Honestly, while I can’t say that I am thrilled with congressional intervention, I am also not all that offended by it, maybe that is because I would much rather see my government interfere in order to protect life than take it away.

    This whole Schiavo matter makes me feel like we aren’t too far from declaring open season on the handicapped, and that scares me. I do not want to turn into the Netherlands, where doctors kill people, because they determine their quality of life isn’t worth living, or because they may suck up too many resources. Humans do not create life, who are we to determine when it isn’t worth preserving?

    But overall, I think in about 6 months this will mostly be a non issue. Most pro lifers are not bolting the party no matter what threats Randall Terry makes, and I guess some libertarians might, but who are the bolting for? If they are bolting over the congressional intervention, it isn’t like they are getting better with the DNC, since the DNC thinks federal intervention is the thing to do in every case but human life issues.

    In the end, it may affect a few votes, but I predict this case will mostly be forgotten before the next election cycle begins, and I don’t see either party trying to touch this one, since it really is a non winner.

  7. GP says:

    The Republicans have created a Catch-22 for themselves by simultaneously marginalizing two of their large factions (social conservatives by not doing enough and economic conservatives by doing too much). This will have some minimal negative impact on fund raising, turning out the vote, etc. However the majority of the Republican party, like the rest of the country, sees this for what it is: an arrogant and hypocritical explotation by their party of a private family issue. Being pragmatists, they will realize that the Democrats are equally likely to do the same with a different set of facts. So generally, no harm no foul.

    The risk for the Republicans though is that the Democrats finally pull their heads out of their cavernous *#$’es and throw this dramatic overreach by the Republican party back in their face. Crafting a message which threads together Sciavo and many of the other recent Republican overreaches into a coherent, centrist message of small government, respect for life, pragmatism, ethics and federalism would sucker punch the Republican leadership right where they deserve it. Without any obvious strong leadership or personalities on the Democratic side at this moment, this will be difficult. But, as with anyone who is down for long, the Democrats will soon lick their wounds and rebound with a strong message that resonates with a majority of Americans. And the Republican leadership is making that all too easy as of late.

  8. Mike says:

    w/ Dean and Hillary leading the way, moderates like myself will vote for anyone the Republicans put forth. Seems to me the best thing that can happy for the Republicans is for Hillary to run and having Dean craft the message/strategy for the rest of them.

  9. Jemima Gaines says:

    If this is a real case of the tail wagging the dog, then the Republican Party does have something to worry about. It has given too much credence to extremists, who, not so surpisingly, turned their ire on the Bush brothers and other GOP leaders when they didn’t get what they wanted. Despite the blanketing of the blogosphere by ‘Blogs for Terri,’ the constituency for the claim that Schiavo was not really in a persistent vegetative state was small according to the polls. Yet, the GOP leadership catered to it. I don’t see how they can not be harmed by having misread the public so badly.

  10. Copper says:

    I’m disgusted by both parties and their pandering. My vote will go to a 3rd party candidate.