A Time for Uncertainty
Just when you thought you had seen everything, there's this: the activist pro-choice liberal the Rev. Jesse Jackson standing next to the activist pro-life conservative Randall Terry--both pleading for Terri Schiavo's feeding tube to be reinserted. The scene last week was so remarkable, in fact, that Randall Terry couldn't believe it: "We have been on the opposite side of things for many, many years. . . . I could not have written this script if I had been on acid." Indeed.
But there is something going on here that is larger than the Jackson/Terry alliance for airtime. Before the Schiavo debate, the sides in America's culture wars were largely played out in black and white: for or against capital punishment, for or against abortion. But the Schiavo case demolished easy moral certitude. Even if you believed, as I did, that Terri Schiavo should be allowed to die, your heart understood why her parents fought it for so long. "The best outcome," says William Galston, a former Bill Clinton domestic policy adviser, "is if this makes life a little less safe for the good-versus-evil extremists."
Maybe it already has.
Sure, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay couldn't resist vowing to avenge the "men responsible for this." Yet despite his predictable outburst against judges, it hasn't escaped anyone's notice in recent weeks that tough, moral decisions are often accompanied by glaring inconsistencies: How can a true "pro-life" politician who wants Schiavo to live, for instance, also support the death penalty? And how can a true "pro-choice" politician vote for a measure to keep Schiavo alive--even though her husband says that was not her choice? Such conflicts are not easy to reconcile.
Yet in the wake of the Schiavo case, there is encouraging conversation. Some conservatives are now questioning their own unequivocal support for the death penalty. "If we're trying to establish a culture of life, it's difficult to have the state sponsoring executions," Kansas conservative Sen. Sam Brownback told me. So where does this lead? To a debate, he says, perhaps over the elimination of taxpayer funding for abortions and capital punishment. "My hope is that we form a left-right coalition on life."
Then there's Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Last week, he rushed to Schiavo's bedside to pray with her parents. But he also allowed that the death penalty he now supports should be limited to "extreme cases," warning that "we have to be more cautious." And didn't President Bush, who speaks of the "culture of life" yet presided over 152 executions while governor of Texas, also support legislation in his State of the Union address "to prevent wrongful conviction"? In other words, fewer deaths.
Who asked them? Looking back at the Schiavo case, the rush to get Washington involved was a classic case of Congress's refighting the last war: If values mattered in the election of 2004, then the pols would show they had some. In doing so, of course, they abandoned the principle of separation of powers and tried to legislate congressional involvement in a personal matter. Fully 82 percent of the Americans recoiled at the spectacle of the politicians' meddling with a family matter. Hopefully, it won't happen again.
That said, all is not lost. Terri Schiavo's story showed that issues of moral complexity are too important to be broken down along party lines, no matter how hard DeLay tries. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa liberal who has spent a lifetime working for the rights of the disabled, sided with Republicans. Liberal Democrat Sen. Ted Kennedy is working with Brownback on a measure that could end up reducing the number of aborted Down syndrome fetuses. And can it be a coincidence that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton--who is eyeing 2008--recently spoke of abortion as a "sad, even tragic choice" for many women? Of course not. "There is an opportunity for people of good faith to find common ground in this debate," she said. Look for her to try to find it.
"Stridency on any side doesn't go down well," says Will Marshall, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council [Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute]. He has a point. Just ask the fiery liberal Jesse Jackson and the antiabortion activist Randall Terry. "Conservatives and liberals can find common ground," Jackson told a press conference last week. Then he left to meet with Florida's Republican governor, Jeb Bush.
This story appears in the April 11, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.