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.”