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The Quiet Religious Target On Jeb Bush

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Polling is mixed, but when it comes to resources and potential resources, Jeb Bush is the man to beat for the GOP presidential nomination.  Hugh has often said that the abundance of candidates under which we labor is an advantage because the early oppo fire has to be a shotgun instead of a rifle in the earliest stages of the game.  By this time in the game last cycle, Obama, and his allies were already shooting right at Mitt Romney.  This cycle, no one quite knows where to aim, but if I were the Hillary oppo people I’d be looking closest at Jeb.  Currently, religion is as much fodder for oppo work as it is binder between a candidate and his base.

Some targets just stand there and yell “shoot me,” tilting the scales towards religion as oppo.  Ted Cruz’s grossly overt religious utterances in his announcement would be one such example.  Mike Huckabee’s hucksterism speaks for itself as another example.  But these are issues of presentation, rhetoric and style – they can be combated on the same grounds.  As governor of Florida Jeb Bush, on at least one issue that created a national firestorm, has governed straight out of his Roman Catholic convictions and as such presents a target of substance, not just style.  His candidacy could reignite that national firestorm all over again.  It is difficult to say which direction this particular issue will tilt the scales, but the ground work has begun to bring this issue back to heated attention.

The first inkling I got was back in late February when Bobby Schindler, Terry Schiavo’s brother, came to Jeb’s defense in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.

The usual media suspects are excoriating Jeb Bush—again—for trying to help save my sister Terri Schiavo’s life. An article last month in the Tampa Bay Times, “The Audacity of Jeb Bush,” later quoted in a New Yorker article titled “The Punisher,” accused the former Florida governor of going “all in on Schiavo” and running roughshod over Florida state law.

[…]

The case against Jeb Bush seems to be that he exceeded his constitutional authority and, having done so, revealed the kind of rogue president he would be if elected. Actually, he was following a duly passed Florida law later found to be unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. That’s not acting unconstitutionally. Once the statute was invalidated, Mr. Bush followed the law.

It was about ten years ago and anybody then of voting age or higher should remember the national debate well.  It dominated media for days.  A few days after the Schindler piece in WSJ, Wesley J. Smith took to the First Things web site to describe how deeply the debate divided the nation.  Smith notes that the story has not faded from the public consciousness, “Still, most heated public controversies run their course and fade into history. But not this one. Since her death, Terri has become a symbol of deep-seated conflicts in our country about the nature of human life and what role we have in controlling it—or ending it.”

The rumbles continued in a mid-March religious profile of Jeb in the New York Times:

Many of his priorities during his two terms as governor of Florida aligned with those of the Catholic Church — including his extraordinary, and unsuccessful, effort to force a hospital to keep Terri Schiavo on life support, as well as less well-known, and also unsuccessful, efforts to appoint a guardian for the fetus of a developmentally disabled rape victim and to prevent a 13-year-old girl from having an abortion. He even, during his first year in office in 1999, signed a law creating a “Choose Life” license plate.

One gets the impression that Terri Schiavo is going to haunt the Bush campaign from this point forward.  (For the record, a well-regarded future presidential possibility may be creating his own poltergeist.)  The issue does not fall along traditional left/right divides.  Continuance of Schiavo’s life was supported across the political spectrum, but as Smith noted:

But the political diversity of Terri’s supporters has been ignored or downplayed in most media stories—and from the beginning. The New York Times, for instance, barely mentioned Terri’s name until Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry appeared on the scene. Under the front-page headline “Victory in Florida Feeding Case Emboldens the Religions Right,” the paper reported forebodingly that Terri’s socially conservative supporters intended to harness public sympathy to “chip away at court rulings allowing abortion and banning organized prayer in schools and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.”

Utter drivel, but once the story settled into a theocrats-versus-rationalists contest, people divided into their usual ideological corners, and most remain there to this day.

With this background the issue stands, if properly managed by the Bush campaign, to bring voters into his camp that might otherwise never consider a Republican.  But at the same time, the issue could be Jeb’s “Mormon.”

Evangelicals, born, bred and steeped in American democracy, tend to be pretty pragmatic. Legally the heart of the battle for Terri Schiavo’s life was a question about who got to make decisions on her behalf.  This Evangelical found that question to be the problem.  It reduces the person being cared for to chattel.  But when a person cannot and/or has not expressed their desires for such a circumstance, on what basis is the law to make its determinations?  Not even churches can agree on the moral and ethical questions.  In the modern irreligious era certainly the courts could not decide on that basis.  Many, many Evangelicals looked at the Schiavo situation and shrugged.  They found it distasteful and perhaps even wrong, but did not think there was a reasonable other outcome.  They may have carried on the in argument, but they would have never gone to war.

Roman Catholics, historically established by kings and establishing many a kingdom, approached it quite differently.  Recently, James Conley on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, reexamined John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, noting how in it the Pontiff reasoned from contraception to issues precisely like those highlighted in the Schiavo situation.  It is a powerful argument and one that every Christian, regardless of affiliation, should read.  Catholics were really very much ready to go to war over Terri Schiavo’s life.

Evangelicals also really love their contraception.  I cannot find anything about Wesley J. Smith’s religious affiliation, but he certainly rejects the papal arguments when he writes, “Even though Terri’s case had nothing to do with abortion,….”

There is already quite a long, historical rub between Catholics and Evangelicals.  Despite increased political cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals in recent decades, many a Evangelical would not hesitate to tell you Catholics are not Christians.  Catholics will not allow Protestants to participate in the Eucharist without training and conversion.  Issues like the Schiavo story could widen the already problematic Evangelical/Catholic divide into the uncrossable canyon that the Evangelical/Mormon divide proved to be.  This comes at a time when Catholic influence in the G.O.P. is rising, and the Romney nomination last time would indicate Evangelical influence is waning.

Some pundits think that the Schiavo story establishes Jeb’s religious cred.  But that analysis ignores the fact that Romney had some of the strongest religious creds in the history of presidential candidates, it was just the wrong religion.  Obama beating Romney was not so much a story of the secular left beating the religious right as it was the secular left pulling a few religious strings and dividing the religious right against itself.  The left has mastered the ways of identity politics to a level we can never hope to match.

Methinks the Bush/Schiavo story is rolling out now because the Bush shop is trying to get some traction with the evangelical right, or at least have a foundation to build upon when they need to coalesce factions within the party.  But I am not sure the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are the way to do that.  Bush needs another round with Hewitt where religious questions are on the table – maybe even a talk with David Brody or Glenn Beck.  If he wants to reach Evangelicals he needs to tell the story in the form of a personal testimony.  If he sticks to the standard press, the spin is going to do more damage than good.

Watch this space.

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