The political clash over the tragedy of Terri Schiavo is highlighting once again the Achilles Heel of the conservative movement. Dormant for two presidential elections, the yawning chasm between economic and social conservatives is reemerging, and with it, a serious threat to the Republicans' majority status.
As we've noted before, the ascendancy of the Right is constantly threatened by the strains between social conservatives and their fiscally conservative, often libertarian allies. On one side, the religious Right of Robertson, Falwell, Dobson and Bauer sees a culture at risk. On the other, the laissez faire free marketeers want markets and personal liberties unfettered by the heavy hand of the government. Unfortunately for them, they can't have it both ways.
As Atrios has conveniently summarized, the Schiavo affair and the dangerously unprecedented intervention by President Bush and the Congressional leadership has brought this schism back into the open. Stephen Moore, a free market purist now of the Free Enterprise Fund, worried that "I don't normally like to see the federal government intervening in a situation like this," adding "a lot of conservatives are really struggling with this case." Senator John Warner (R-VA) stated that he "learned from many years you've got to separate your own emotions from the duty to support the Constitution of this country." Representative Christopher Shays (R-CT), complained, "My party is demonstrating that they are for states' rights unless they don't like what states are doing." Of the Republicans' hyprocrisy and confusion over the Schiavo tragedy, Clinton inquisitor Bob Barr may have said it best:
"To simply say that the 'culture of life,' or whatever you call it means that we don't have to pay attention to the principles of federalism or separation of powers is certainly not a conservative viewpoint."
These tensions are always bubbling just below the surface for the conservative coalition. In 1992, Pat Buchanan's fiery primetime address to the Republican National Convention, calling on the nation to retake the culture "block by block" helped put Bill Clinton in White House. George W. Bush, mindful of the fate of his father, worked with the religious right in 2000 and again in 2004 to mute their wishes until after his election. (The "rainbow" entertainment on stage and speeches by Schwarzeneggar and Guiliani showed the lesson of pre-election moderation is one the President learned well.)
Despite these efforts to paper over these fundamental tensions, the cracks in the conservative monolith reappear all the same. As we wrote last fall ("Markets, Morality and Monday Night Football"), the conservative factions battled again over the raunchy Terrell Owens "Desperate Housewives" ad. The economic conservatives' pure market theory stated that angry viewers-cum-consumers could express different preferences by changing the channel and watching something else. For social conservatives, there are two three-letter answers: FCC and GOD. The former could censor or otherwise regulate content to change programming; the latter could change Americans' hearts.
Now, the Schiavo affair and the opportunism of Bill Frist and Tom Delay exposes this civil war on the Right. With their unpopular position widely seen as bankrupt and unprincipled, the mouthpieces of the conservative ascendancy are reduced to doing what they do best: attack. As the legal options fade, the Wall Street Journal, Tom Delay and their ilk slander Michael Schiavo, seeking to cast doubt on his worthiness as a means of shielding their own perfidy.
As for the Democrats, the Republicans' potential for undoing is not necessarily their opportunity. To return from the wilderness, they must address some Achilles' Heels of their. As we've written on many occasions, until Democrats regain credibility on national security issues, shed their image as the party of multiculturalism and identity politics, and become at least competitive among white males, their hopes for an "emerging Democratic majority" will remain just that - hopes.
For now, though, it seems that the Republicans will be punished for their role in the Schiavo affair. The longer the GOP leadership perpetuates this travesty, the longer the conservative movement will twist in the wind.