Another Terri Schiavo Moment?

Last night on Twitter I tossed out the theory that the Judge Jerry Smith’s challenge to the president from the bench and the rapturous conservative reaction it has provoked might turn out to be a “Terri Schiavo Moment” for the Judicial Right. By that I meant an incident providing a very public glimpse into a veiled, radical perspective that supposedly mainstream, respectable figures embraced.

Most of you probably remember the Schiavo incident, exemplified by Sen. Bill Frist’s diagnosis of the Florida woman from the Senate floor.

Interestingly enough, when I posed the theory late last night in a conversation with some other progressives, I unintentionally touched off a heated and sometimes angry debate–not because I considered the two incidents analogous (everyone seemed to concede that), but because I was making the “mistake” of thinking that any conservative outrages would have a tangible political impact in this particular day and age.

One argument in that direction was simply that the country was too polarized for “persuasion” to matter any more, if it ever had. We just had to accept that Americans had become two warring tribes and all we could do is pick up sides and go at it. Another was that the MSM was so mired in “false equivalence” habits that conservative “outrages” would be deemed no worse than trumped-up liberal “outrages,” no matter what was said and done.

Among those objecting to my Schiavo comparison, there was a palpable fear that progressives were again falling into the trap of “reasoning” with people about conservative intentions instead of just going to war with an energized base that already understood the stakes of the battle.

While I understand that perspective, I consider it not only overwrought but potentially self-paralyzing. You don’t have to get into deep analysis of “memes” and “narratives” to grasp that political competition is dynamic, that many voters, even habitual partisans, have mixed feelings and opinions, and that elections are ultimately decided not just by “winning” segments of the electorate but by reducing margins of defeat where you can. The Schiavo incident, I believe, did contribute to the disastrous GOP performance in 2006 because it alienated many independents and some Republicans who thought the GOP was committed to minimal government interference in private life, and minimal federal interference with state-level policies and decisions. It was galvanizing precisely because it offered a direct, visceral glimpse into the conservative id, and into a political party that had become dangerously dependent on support from cultural extremists (in that case, the anti-choice movement, which was deeply invested in the claim that the Democratic “party of death” wanted to legitimize euthanasia as well as “infanticide.”

I don’t know that a judge in Texas suddenly challenging the President of the United States to a constitutional fistfight can really be compared in its power to the spectacle of U.S. Senators calling themselves into a special session to micromanage an end-of-life decision in Florida. It obviously involves arcane issues that don’t much affect regular folks immediately. But at a time when the entire conservative movement and the GOP is fixated on the twin goals of destroying health reform and the president who has succeeded in enacting health reform legislation, exposure of their remarkable hypocrisy and extraordinary aggressiveness could turn more than a few persuadable heads. And if nothing else, progressive voters may gain a better understanding that presidential appointments to lifetime positions on the federal bench have real-life consequences for decades.

So rage on, Judge Smith, and cheer on, conservative battlefield converts to the value of judicial review. If nothing else, you may semi-permanently disable yourselves from shouting about judicial activism.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.