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The Culture of Life or the Culture of Ideology?

The Bush administration, with its aggressive intervention into the Terry Schiavo case, appears to have bet that it can make political gains from linking the Schiavo case to a generalized case for a "culture of life".

So far, this attempt has been a thunderous failure.

1. In a March 20 ABC News survey, 63 percent supported the decision to Schiavo's feeding tube while just 28 percent opposed it. Support for the decision cuts across partisan, ideological and religious lines, showing a remarkably undivided public. Democrats supported the decision 65-25, independents 63-28, Republicans 61-34, moderates 69-22, conservatives 54-40 and even conservative Republicans 55-40. Catholics supported the decision and even self-declared evangelicals narrowly supported it 46-44.

The public also solidly opposed federal intervention into the case by 60-35, with the same broad support across partisan, ideological and religious lines. And by 70-27, the public thought it was inappropriate for Congress to get involved in this case.

2. A March 18-20 Gallup poll, the public, by 56-31, agreed that removing Schiavo's feeding tube was the right thing to do, with the same pattern of broad support seen in the ABC News poll. For example, while Democrats said removing the tube was the right thing to do by 62-26, independents agreed by 54-31 and even Republicans by 54-35. Hilariously, these exact data, which show a very small partisan spread, were displayed by CNN on its website in a classically deceptive way to imply a big partisan spread. This was done by using a truncated scale that went from a low of 53 to a high of 63. That truncated scale gave the Republicans and independents a bar height of just 1 and the Democrats a bar height of 9 that wound up towering above the Republicans and independents in the chart. Naughty, naughty, CNN!

Gallup also did a March 22 poll that found 52 percent of the public supported the federal judge's decision not to reattach Schiavo's feeding tube, compared to 39 percent who didn't. The same poll found Bush will only a 32 percent approval rating, with 52 percent disapproval, on handling the Schiavo case.

3. In a March 21-22 CBS News poll, the public endorsed the decision to remove Schiavo's feeding tube, 61-28. And, by 66-27, they said the feeding tube should not be re-attached at this point.

As for intervention into the case, they said the following: by 82-13, Congress and the president should stay out of the matter; by 75-22, federal and state governments should generally stay out of life support cases; and, by 67-31, the Supreme Court should not hear the Schiavo case. And as a kicker, the public said that Congress' intervention into the case was to advance a political agenda (74 percent) rather than because they really care about what happens in the case.

How's all this affecting Bush's popularity? Well, it certainly doesn't seem to be helping. In this poll, Bush's overall approval rating is just 43 percent, with 48 percent disapproval. In addition, his rating on Iraq is now only 39 percent approval/53 percent disapproval and his rating on the economy is a stunningly bad 36/53, further evidence of growing public disenchantment with the economy.

And let's not forget Congress. In the wake of their handling of the Schiavo case, Congress' approval rating has plunged to 34/49.

In light of these data, is there any way not to read these data as a bad thing for the GOP? One way, of course, is to argue that all the pollsters' questions are biased, an absurd contention disposed of handily by Mark Blumenthal over at Mystery Pollster (thanks, Mark!).

Another way (see Noam Scheiber) is to argue that, despite the unpopularity of Bush's and the GOP's stand, it serves to create a favorable contrast with the spineless, morally relativist Democrats.

I don't buy it. Sometimes bad politics is just bad politics. As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center put it in his recent op-ed, "A Political Victory That Wasn't", in the New York Times:

....Americans have a strong pragmatic streak. While most Americans may say they believe in creationism rather than evolution, on issues that directly affect their own lives, like health and protection of the quality of life, science wins.

Take note, for example, of the increasing support for stem-cell research. A nationwide Pew poll last August found respondents by a 52 percent to 34 percent margin saying it was more important to conduct stem-cell research that might result in new cures than to avoid destroying the potential life of embryos. Two years earlier, when this issue was first emerging, the public was more evenly divided, with 43 percent in favor and 38 percent against .

The August poll, taken during the presidential campaign, had another noteworthy lesson: the middle of the electorate, the swing voters, not only cared a lot about the stem-cell issue but also backed stem-cell research by nearly a two-to-one margin.

Thus, far from being devilishly clever on this one, Republicans are really creating another issue like stem cell research where the minority ideology of socially conservative forces within their party becomes counterposed to most Americans' pragmatic interest in health research and control over health decisions.

In short, this is an issue that identifies Republicans with a "culture of ideology", rather than with a culture of life. And that's a loser every time.