Politicians Ignore Public Interest

Article excerpt

One of the more interesting aspects of the Terri Schiavo case is how much many elected officials--and presumably the political gurus advising them--misread public opinion.

No doubt moral principle motivated some legislators to support federal intervention. But the volume of support, the rapidity with which it was done (when was the last time a president flew through the night to sign a bill?) and the intensity of comments all suggest that many Americans thought having the national government step in was smart politics.

They were wrong. Frank Newport, once a sociology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and now in charge of the Gallup Poll, has assembled the survey evidence. Here's what it shows:

* The politicians should have known better. The one time Gallup asked about a Schiavo-type case, in October 2003, 80 percent said that "when a patient is in a persistent vegetative state caused by irreversible brain damage, his or her spouse should be allowed by law to make a final decision to end the patient's life by some painless means" and just 17 percent replied that such action "should not be allowed."

* As the media frenzy peaked in the third week of March, three polls (Gallup, Time, CBS News) had majorities ranging from 56 percent to 61 percent agreeing with Michael Schiavo's decision to remove his wife's feeding tube, with 28 percent to 35 percent disagreeing. All three questions mentioned Terri Schiavo's parents' opposition to removing the feeding tube and two cited arguments put forth by her parents (e.g., "her condition could improve").

* Opposition to federal intervention is consistent and strong. A March 22-24 Time survey showed 75 percent saying Congress's involvement was "not right" and almost as many, 70 percent, thought the same about President George W. Bush. In the same poll, 65 percent said that the "Congress and the president's intervention had more to do with politics" rather than "their values and principles." Fifty-four percent would be less likely and just 21 percent more likely to vote for a member of Congress who "voted to move the Schiavo case to the federal courts."

* Democratic and Republican legislators receive roughly equal disapproval for their action (among Democrats, 42 percent disapprove and 28 percent approve; among Republicans, 47 percent disapprove and 26 percent approve) according to a March 22 Gallup poll.

Otis White with the Civic Strategies consulting firm writes a monthly column on urban doings for Governing magazine and produces a daily e-mail about what's happening in U. …