I've maintained since the November election that the current political situation in the United States is analogous to a "Cold Civil War"--deep, possibly irreconcileable differences between opposing factions, but no actual violence, thank goodness. What's at stake is the future direction of the country and whether we'll essentially continue the incrementalist, process-driven system envisioned by the Founders and refined through the liberal consensus of the mid-20th century, or whether we'll move to a very different model of free-market fundamentalism coupled with social coercion backed by tacit or explicit state power. The battlefields are the halls of Congress, the TV and radio airwaves, newspaper op-ed pages, and whatever real or virtual forums remain that are frequented by people of different political persuasions.
But the significance of the Terri Schiavo episode, now mercifully semi-concluded with Ms. Schiavo's passing earlier today, might prove to be that it has exposed a long-simmering internecine conflict within the Republicans' center-right coalition, which has held firm since the Supreme Court ended the Bush v. Gore dispute in late 2000. The New York Times yesterday ran an extraordinary op-ed by former Senator John Danforth (R-Missouri), which amplified and expanded upon Rep. Chris Shays' (R-CT) statement last week that his party has become "the party of theocracy." Here's Danforth:
The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement.
When government becomes the means of carrying out a religious program, it raises obvious questions under the First Amendment. But even in the absence of constitutional issues, a political party should resist identification with a religious movement. While religions are free to advocate for their own sectarian causes, the work of government and those who engage in it is to hold together as one people a very diverse country. At its best, religion can be a uniting influence, but in practice, nothing is more divisive. For politicians to advance the cause of one religious group is often to oppose the cause of another.
During the 18 years I served in the Senate, Republicans often disagreed with each other. But there was much that held us together. We believed in limited government, in keeping light the burden of taxation and regulation. We encouraged the private sector, so that a free economy might thrive. We believed that judges should interpret the law, not legislate. We were internationalists who supported an engaged foreign policy, a strong national defense and free trade. These were principles shared by virtually all Republicans.
But in recent times, we Republicans have allowed this shared agenda to become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives. As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way around.
Boiled down, Danforth--an Episcopalian minister with unquestioned credentials, who was rumored to be a leading contender for the vice-presidential nomination in 2000--is echoing the accusation that, rather than confronting real problems universal to all Americans like the federal deficit, his co-partisans are focusing on symbolic politics and carrying water for one faction within the heretofore triumphant coalition.
(As an aside, Bush's choice of Cheney over Danforth can be seen as a real tragedy for the country. It would have been a great benefit to have a moderate pragmatist, respected even among his political adversaries, somewhere in the halls of power. In fact, it's not hard to imagine how the whole course of the Bush administration might have unfolded differently; rather than the Cheney/Rumsfeld axis holding sway in foreign policy, pushing ever harder for a war with a shifting rationale but without an exit strategy, and the "deficits don't matter/tax cuts are our due" absolutism that's driving us toward the economic cliff--and putting us ever deeper in the pocket of China--we might have seen a Danforth/Powell/O'Neill camp pursuing responsible public policies at home and abroad. Then again, maybe that's why Bush made the decision he made.)
If Danforth's article was the warning thunder, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds provided the spark of lightning in this article on salon.com today:
[The Schiavo case] is the sort of question that state law, and state courts, are supposed to deal with. If Congress thinks that states in general are dealing badly with these kinds of questions in a way that endangers federal constitutional rights, it is empowered to pass general legislation under the 14th Amendment. But deciding individual cases isn't something that Congress is supposed to do, and it's rather shocking to find so many "small government" Republicans supporting it.
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.
History tells us that politically dominant coalitions fracture over issues that might initially seem insignificant. But the Reynolds and Danforth pieces suggest that this isn't about Terri Schiavo per se; rather, her sad story has become a screen onto which two very different visions of governance have been projected. In the end, as Reynolds suggests (albeit from a very different perspective), it's probably too much to hope that the "Danforth wing" will really defect to the Democrats, or even move toward internal agitation a la Moveon.org. But this schism is real, and it will color Republican actions for at least the rest of this Congress and quite possibly beyond.
As an American first and a progressive second, one of my great hopes from last year's election was that a defeat of Bush and his politics of division, fear, and heedlessness would push the Republican Party back toward real "conservatism"--fiscal responsibility, prudent foreign policy, respect for process, checks and balances, problem-solving rather than ideological posturing. It would be ironic, but no less welcome, if this happened within the context of Republican political dominance rather than defeat.