The Terri Schiavo case is rousing the moderates

The scene is familiar to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with American politics — prayer vigils, demonstrations, talk-radio hosts obsessing, the Christian right closing in. But in the terrible tragedy of Terri Schiavo, the center is joining the debate with a ferocity usually reserved for the right. As in most social debates, the moderates have the majority, but, unlike discussions over abortion or gay marriage, in this debate they also match the intensity of their conservative critics.

The scene is familiar to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with American politics — prayer vigils, demonstrations, talk-radio hosts obsessing, the Christian right closing in. But in the terrible tragedy of Terri Schiavo, the center is joining the debate with a ferocity usually reserved for the right.

As in most social debates, the moderates have the majority, but, unlike discussions over abortion or gay marriage, in this debate they also match the intensity of their conservative critics.

Most of us will never have an abortion. We are either too male, too old, too inactive or too moral. The life/choice debate is, for us, a bit of a spectator sport. So is the focus on gay marriage. We may care about the issue, but, as Clinton would often put it, we don’t have a dog in that hunt.

But we will all die — and don’t we know it! We can all see ourselves at the wrong end of a feeding tube, sucking out sustenance to sustain a life we might more willingly forfeit. We can not only put ourselves in the place of those most intimately concerned with Schiavo’s fate — her husband and parents — but we can put ourselves right there in the bed, in a coma — which the doctors call a “persistent vegetative state” — with no hope and no life worth living.

A recent poll by the New York Post showed that, while two-thirds of Americans favor the removal of Terri’s feeding tube, more than 80 percent would want their own tube to be removed were they similarly situated. Schiavo is not just a political issue to those who advocate terminating her life support. She is our worst personal nightmare.

To those who oppose the right-to-life position, the political intervention by state and federal legislators and executives, is, truly, the most intrusive example of the very big governmental excesses that the political right decries.

One can well understand the passion of the pro-lifers on the issue of abortion. They have a fetus to protect. For them, the commitment to preserving life carries into the womb. We may not agree, but we can certainly respect and empathize with their view.

But with Schiavo, there is no fetus. There is just Terri. And when we put ourselves in her place, more than 80 percent of us think we would want to die. To be told that we must linger in a non-life because of the dictates of a governor wedded to the religious right and a Congress in the grip of ideologically driven leaders seems to the vast majority of us a level of government interference we find too intrusive to tolerate.

Next to a decision that we must live as vegetables, OSHA regulations, IRS bullying and EPA stubbornness pale by comparison. How ironic that, at the precise moment when most of us are prepared to embrace the agenda of the libertarian conservatives, we find the Republican Party, their supposed champions, running screaming in the other direction.

Politically, the Schiavo case will hurt the Republican Party, but the damage will soon fade. The president has stepped lightly on the issue, and his popularity and effectiveness will not be affected. But Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) better look for a new line of work. The right is mad at him for not standing in the hospice door. The center is furious at his butting in where most Americans, and Floridians, feel he has no right to be. Only the left is overjoyed to see a possible presidential contender caught in the crossfire.

Jeb is showing that he lacks George’s ability to dance and duck. We elected Bush Sr. knowing he was once pro-choice, proof that he was no fanatic. We chose Bush Jr. because he let us know, early in the campaign, that he would not spend his presidency relitigating — literally or figuratively — Roe v. Wade, however abortion offended his sense of right and wrong. He made clear he had other, higher priorities.

But by taking a doctrinaire position and then backing off it, Jeb Bush has shown us that he would charge where others would tread with caution. Too bad. We might have needed him to stop Hillary.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.