Strategery backfires

The Schiavo case seems to be costing GWB support among conservatives and churchgoers. That makes sense if you imagine, just for a moment, that you thought this was a case of judicial murder. You’d think the President hadn’t said or done nearly enough. You’d think that he’d been weak and cowardly.

My DD summarizes recent polls: GWB’s job performance has taken a sharp dip. Maybe that reflects other circumstances, but with the Schiavo case dominating the news the least hypothesis is that his actions on that case haven’t played well with the public.

Strangely, according to Gallup GWB’s losses have come disproportionatly among conservatives and churchgoers, not the groups most likely to oppose restoring Schiavo’s life support. So what’s going on?

Perhaps the feed-Terri crowd is paying more attention to the President’s silences than to his words. Note how quiet GWB has been about the case since signing the bill; what little he has said hasn’t been encouraging to the supporters of keeping her on life support.

(And note that Randall Terry and some of the other religious-right ultras have now even turned on Jeb Bush, who has been far more active in the cause than his brother. Update: More from First Read on right-wing discontent with GWB.)

To you and me, that seems bizarre. But that’s only because we assume that the use of the term “murder” to descibe the situation is simply absurd.

But think of this from the perspective of the people getting their news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh. The feed-Terri forces, including Tom DeLay, have been telling their supporters loudly for two weeks that there’s an innocent woman in Florida being killed by her husband and a cabal of judges.

Of course that’s not the way the case looks to you and me, but imagine just for a moment that it did.

Consider a case of actual judicial murder. Imagine that some state court judge in Florida had issued what purported to be a “judicial order” under which court officers had seized someone who had accused the judge of corruption and were holding that person in a cell for “contempt of court” and refusing him food and water, hoping for him to die before he could testify against the judge.

And imagine further that the higher-court judges were all part of the same corrupt organization and had refused to interfere with the “order” of the lower court.

Wouldn’t you expect the governor to send in the state troopers to rescue the victim? I would. (And if instead the judge had “ordered” the victim killed at once, and there was no time to get a higher court to overrule him, I would absolutely expect the governor to send the troopers in, and even to order them to shoot the court officers if necessary to rescue the prisoner.)

And if the governor were in on the racket, too, wouldn’t you expect the President to figure out a way to get the Federal government involved, even if that meant encroaching on the sovereignty of the state? A harder question, but at the very least I’d expect to see the President protesting loudly and persistently, even if the Federal courts for some bizarre reason decided they lacked jurisdiction. I wouldn’t be satisfied if he just signed a bill giving them jurisdiction and then shrugged when they refused to exercise it. And if a Congressional committee had the bright idea of issuing a subpoena for the victim and the judge as a way of effectuating a rescue, I’d expect the President to offer the Congress the use of the U.S. Marshals to enforce that subpoena.

So there’s no reconciling the rhetoric of “murder” with the failure of the two Bushes to act even more forcefully than they have. What to you and me looks reckless looks, to those who think an innocent person is being starved to death by court order, intolerably weak.

The President “stood up for life” only until it became politically inconvenient. Then he backed off, not even mentioning the “murder victim” in his Easter message.

Once there is no more new news, the Schiavo affair will fade from public consciousness. But the image of the President as a straight shooter, someone who stands up for what he believes in, and someone who manages to get his way has surely suffered, and may not recover soon.

And that damage to the base comes on top of the alienation of reality-based and process conservatives and libertarians, and of whatever the incident might have done to mobilize Democrats.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be poetic justice if it worked out that way?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: