News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Schiavo exposes schism in conservative coalition

The plight of Terri Schiavo is tragic. The debate over her future belies the conservatism many politicos espouse.

The widespread popularity of conservative philosophy has left many Democrats in dry dock. In the South, the right-of-center politicians embrace conservative religious values. In other states, right-of-center politicians focus on economic and political conservatism.

The battle-weary Dems have waited impatiently for an issue that discloses the fault line between the mismatched teams waving the conservative banner.

Political conservatism has little to do with religion and everything to do with the separation of powers. The federal government should not meddle in state affairs. The courts should not meddle in lawmaking, that being the province of the legislature.

The same schism is evident in the strategic huddles outside Mrs. Schiavo's hospice room.

Religious conservatives see in Mrs. Schiavo a new litmus test that shadows the abortion debate. We are a godly nation, and the conservative view of God has him firing thunderbolts at those who kill fetuses and those who kill the comatose alike.

The conservative schism relates less to Mrs. Schiavo's prognosis than to the procedures her advocates are willing to employ in keeping her alive.

Religious conservatives are worried about the outcome, not about which road they have to take to reach that outcome. Given this result-oriented approach, their strategy in the debate has been quite sensible. If the state courts will intervene to keep her alive, great. If not, Plan B is the federal courts. Plan C was the state legislature, Plan D the federal legislature.

Indeed, their tactics closely resemble the tactics of the liberals they love to castigate. Liberal humanists have typically had success in getting the courts to intrude on legislative territory. Religious conservatives have better luck getting the legislature to intrude on court territory.

For the other half of the conservative party — the limited-government advocates — the road is everything and the outcome is politically irrelevant. It is not the issue that should shape governmental action but the Constitution. And the Constitution says courts, not legislatures, apply the law to specific disputes.

The tremors resulting from the gaping fault line will eventually reshape the nation's political landscape. Today's political dividing point is situated not between Republicans and Democrats, not between conservatives and liberals. Rather, the line is between those who advocate for particular outcomes and those who argue it is the Constitutional mechanism, not the particular issue, that should control.

If there is any positive in the debate, it is that Mrs. Schiavo's case is forcing the two breeds of conservatives to look at their bedfellows in a new and unflattering light.

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