There's another lesson for Democrats in this whole sad and sometimes ugly Schiavo affair. It has nothing to do with the politics of end-of-life care or the particulars of this tragic case. It concerns how Democrats present their views to the nation, how they act politically.
The recent national political phase of this case began with Republicans seeing a political opportunity to mobilize the electorate against Democrats -- an especially inviting opportunity given the turn of other political news of late. Most of the national press bought into this storyline. And most Democrats seem to have done so as well.
That doesn't mean they agreed with the underlying viewpoint advanced by Republicans. But they did buy into the political storyline. And that set into motion the standard drama, with cowering Democrats put to flight and fear by grinning Republicans, with national reporters occasionally aghast but mainly enthralled, as our baser natures might be by a gloveless boxing match.
(From childhood, most of us remember that there is a certain bully character type. But it is seldom an accident just who gets bullied. Bullies, in their very nature, perhaps their deepest nature, know how to sense and seek out people who are afraid to defend themselves. That's an instructive lesson here too.)
Yet now we see, quite in contrast to the conventional wisdom, that what the Washington Republicans have done here is quite unpopular with the public. Narrow majorities think the court decision is the right one; and overwhelming majorities believe Congress shouldn't be getting involved in this at all.
But those polls shouldn't have been necessary for Democrats to know how to act in this case. Anybody watching this could see what the Republican majority was doing was a cheap political stunt. We have laws in this country and courts enforce them. This is a case where there is not even a credible argument that there is any question of legitimate interpretation. That's all another way of saying that the Democrats should have been more confident that the majority of the public would have been more supportive of living under the law of the land in this case, or put another way, of their being the grown-up party.
I consider myself very much a political pragmatist -- what's right has to contend with what's doable, and all that. There are also a number of us who've been saying for years that the Democrats have a problem on national security and that much of it is not so much a question of policy as an ingrained habit of approaching defense policy issues through a prism of politics rather than policy. But this last year has brought home to me the belief that this basic problem extends far beyond national security policy.
I think the record now shows that Democrats have reaped ample political rewards by beginning the Social Security debate with a clear and emphatic statement of their support for the Social Security system as it now exists in advance of the public's reaction. And this is one example among many.
For my part at least, this doesn't mean I'm ditching pragmatism in favor of a come-what-will idealism. Not at all. Far from it. I simply think that we are now operating in a political context in which clarity and candor about where Democrats stand makes for good politics -- much better certainly than the tacking back and forth that has become second nature after such a long time sailing against an adverse wind.
Just as is the case with Republicans, there are things that Democrats believe that a majority of the public does not. That's life. And I'm not naive enough not to recognize that there are some issues of such controversy that they may still require delicate handling. But these two examples above show that Democrats are often inclined to move immediately to the defensive in instances where the public actually supports their viewpoint. And even where that is not the case, I think the Democrats will end up, on balance, in better standing with the public that knows just where they stand and that they're willing to stand for it.