IF THERE WERE any question about the clout that accrued to social and religious conservatives as a result of their impact on last year's elections, it was put to rest by the extraordinary bipartisan pandering in the sad case of Terri Schiavo.
Congressional Republicans cast aside their libertarian instincts and hostility toward big government to intervene in a family medical decision. A handful of Senate Democrats narrowed the sweep of this precedent, but were too fearful of the political backlash to block it altogether.
President Bush made a hasty, dramatic and unnecessary flight back to Washington on Sunday from his Texas ranch so he could be available a few hours earlier than otherwise to sign legislation moving the Schiavo medical dispute from state to federal courts.
Most shameful of all was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's deft exploitation of the Schiavo tragedy to shift attention away from controversies at which he is the center. Suddenly, the ruthless lawmaker who has been admonished for playing fast and loose with ethics restrictions was lecturing the nation on morality.
What can possibly be moral about taking advantage of a brain-damaged woman and her deeply scarred family?
It's most unfortunate that Mrs. Schiavo's husband and parents disagree over whether she should continue to be kept alive on feeding tubes in what has been diagnosed as a persistent vegetative state. If she had recorded her wishes before she became disabled, that might have decided the matter. Or maybe not. Congress' intervention in the case opens a whole range of possibilities.
The constitutional framers wisely designed a three-branch government in which the resolution of personal and individual disputes is assigned to the judiciary, which is supposed to rule dispassionately based on law and evidence.
Congress has demonstrated well in the Schiavo debacle why it is so ill-suited to take on that role. Even for politicians without personal agendas, it was very difficult to turn aside parents appealing for their daughter's life. When the debate became the rallying cause for a pressure group claiming the righteous high ground, those who dared raise constitutional or other concerns were labeled killers.
The buzz phrase "culture of life" applied by the White House and other supporters of the move to give a federal court extraordinary jurisdiction over a medical matter normally left to state courts is a tip-off to what lies ahead. After bullying Congress so effectively in the Schiavo matter, the "values" lobby isn't likely to stop there.
Senate opponents of the Schiavo legislation claimed they scored a victory by writing into the bill a provision that says it can't be used as a legal precedent. They delude themselves.
The precedent of federal intervention in the most intimate and personal of disputes has been set. All those who value the personal liberty and rule of law on which this nation was based should be deeply troubled by it.