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What the Polls Said

Commentary by Greg Lewis / TheRant.US
April 14, 2005

As it has been with regard to virtually every political issue since Bill Clinton took office in 1993, the principal method used by the left to attempt to pin down what "the public" thinks is the opinion poll. Clinton ran his administration at the behest of opinion polling, and, it would appear, the liberal media think that George W. Bush ought to do the same.

Where politicians and the courts were concerned in the case of Terri Schiavo's untimely death at the hands of her husband, Michael Schiavo, and Pinellas-Pasco (Florida) Circuit Court Judge George Greer, opinion polls have been remarkably consistent in what they say the American people think and feel. Given the near unanimity of the polls on key questions in the Schiavo case, it is very difficult to gainsay public opinion. It doesn't matter whether you choose Fox News/Opinion Dynamics or Time or CNN/USA Today/Gallup or CBS News or ABC News, the results are remarkably similar regarding the key questions arising from the case.

For instance, a significant majority of Americans agreed with the decision to remove Terri Schiavo's feeding tubes. With the exception of Fox, where a mere 42% plurality agreed with the decision to remove her feeding tubes, more than 50% (and in several instances more than 60%) of Americans responding to other polls agreed that removing Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tubes was the right thing to do. And in every poll in which the question was asked, respondents emphatically rejected the notion that removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tubes was tantamount to "murder."

Further, political intervention by both the President and Congress to try to save Terri Schiavo was broadly disapproved of. As many as 82% of Americans thought that Congress and the President "should stay out" of the dispute (CBS, March 21-22). In no case did a majority of those polled think that the President or Congress should intervene in the case.

And a majority of respondents in all polls felt that the U.S. Supreme Court should not intervene on behalf of Terri Schiavo. In addition, most of those queried in every poll in which the question was asked thought that the actions of both Democrat and Republican legislators on behalf of Terri Schiavo would be detrimental to their (the legislators') chances for future re-election.

A number of questions arise from the resounding collective response to the issues explored in the public opinion polls. First, we might ask, "Do the across-the-board results of these polls help us get a clearer picture of 'the American voter?'" Second, "If so, do poll results indicate that Americans are somehow heartless people, or at least unsympathetic to the plight of the disabled or infirm?"

I would say, based on the poll results in this case, that Americans are neither heartless nor unsympathetic, but overwhelmingly pragmatic. Moreover, I interpret the results as meaning, not that Americans somehow support what has been characterized as a "culture of death" purveyed by left/liberals, but that the issue of individual autonomy trumps questions about the cultural values that have been raised in the Schiavo case. In other words, what is needed, minimally, is yet another set of opinion polls based on a different set of questions to get to the bottom of the values Americans hold with regard to life-and-death issues.

The portrait of the American voter that emerges from the aggregated answers to polling in the Schiavo case is one of a people who are, above all, opposed to having government interfere in their lives, especially in what they perceive to be highly personal matters. Americans, if the picture painted by our answers to these recent polls is accurate, value their personal autonomy highly and are not willing to give it up easily to a central government.

Further, where specific conflicts arise, Americans seem willing to allow the courts to resolve them. Although there has been, especially on the web and on conservative talk radio shows, a veritable hailstorm of opinions deploring the devaluation of human life seemingly displayed in Michael Schiavo's and Judge Greer's positions with regard to Terri Schiavo's fate, polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly favor letting the husband and the courts decide such outcomes as this. This does not necessarily mean, however, that Americans favor a so-called "culture of death."

Americans, again by a hefty majority in every poll I'm aware of, think that removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tubes was the "right" thing to do, and that she had virtually no chance of recovery had she been kept alive. And while it might be argued that mainstream media coverage was biased in favor of expediting Terri Schiavo's death and may have influenced public opinion on this question, we can't ignore another (and perhaps more important) factor with regard to this issue: A majority of respondents in every poll in which the question was asked indicated that they would want their own feeding tubes to be removed if they were ever in a similar situation.

Polls indicate, above all, that Americans repudiate governmental authority in what they perceive as "personal" or "private" concerns. My sense is that this can be taken by Republicans and conservatives as confirmation that their overriding philosophical position regarding this issue has been vindicated. Indeed, this case has, notwithstanding our President's efforts on behalf of saving Terri Schiavo's life, done nothing if not reinforce the Republican stance that "less government is best government." While in this case public opinion has seemed to come down against Terri Schiavo's right to live, in fact, what has happened is that the public has come down in favor of less government intervention.

Bottom line: This is good for Republicans and bad for Democrats. It is not the Democrat position favoring the culture of death that has been vindicated by these poll results, but rather the Republican position that the less governmental interference in our lives and affairs the better. Americans, via their poll responses, are not saying that they favor death, but rather that they favor individual choice and that they renounce any notion that governmental agencies should make those choices for them.

Nor does the fact that poll respondents are willing to place in the hands of the courts the responsibility for resolving specific individual conflicts indicate a general willingness on the part of the American public to empower the courts to broadly enact federal law by means of their decisions. I would argue the opposite: While poll results in the Schiavo case indicate that Americans are generally willing to accept adjudicated verdicts in specific cases, this does not translate to anything like a blanket acceptance of the judiciary's right to make law.

We need only consult public opinion polls with regard to the abortion issue to understand that an activist judiciary ruled contrary to the opinion of the American public in Roe v. Wade. And recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls regarding yet another critical social policy issue indicate that Americans oppose, by a greater than 60 percent majority, the legalization of gay marriage that was enacted by a court decision in Massachusetts.

Which is to say that, when you conduct polls about content-specific issues, you're very likely to get different responses than when you focus on rather more procedural or legal-process questions. This should serve to point out that the focus of questions asked in the opinion polls I've referred to in the Schiavo case do not address the issue of whether we value life over death.

It goes without saying that we Americans, as a culture, come down on the side of life. Of course we deplore the taking of the life of an innocent, in this case Terri Schiavo. But you pollsters didn't ask us that question! You asked us procedural questions, you dingbats! You didn't ask us whether we thought hubby Michael ought to have bowed to Terri's father and mother and siblings and allowed his "wife" to live in their care! How the hell were we supposed to respond?

Simply put, you focused on the wrong issues, framed the questions you put to us in such a way that we pretty much had to respond as we did. And the responses we gave indicated that — never mind that you can spin the data you gathered otherwise — we're actually highly conservative.

You didn't wonder whether we thought President Bush shared our sense of the value of the individual's life (most of us value it, by the by, as the late Pope John Paul II did, pretty much above all else); rather, you asked us about procedural issues surrounding the determination of who had jurisdiction over the highly personal issue of whether a specific individual's life should be maintained in a particular way.

So don't assume, because we were constrained to answer your arguably skewed questions in a certain way, that our answers can be construed to mean that we share the values of you who would promote a culture of death in this country. We decidedly do not share those values, and we resent any attempt to insinuate that we do, never mind what your spin on recent poll results might be twisted to indicate.



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