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April 14, 2005

Schiavo Case Raises Questions About States' Rights

Daniel Riehs

      The recent, turbulent passing of Terri Schiavo generated a nationwide debate about the morality of near-death issues. It also raised questions about states' rights—in particular the ways in which Republicans and Democrats tend to deal with the issue of Federalism.

      The Republican Party has long been the party of Federalism, or the granting of as much power as possible to individual states. Recent Republican decisions, however, have shown a shift away from this mode of thought. Giving federal jurisdiction to the Schiavo case demonstrated a federal intervention into an issue that has traditionally been decided at the state level. Likewise, during President Bush's time in office, Republican lawmakers have been responsible for passing laws granting the federal government jurisdiction in matters of education, class-action lawsuits, and even drivers licenses. Still, all of these interventions pale in comparison with the failed attempt to pass a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. John McCain, one of the few Republican members of Congress to vote against the amendment, did so in hopes of preserving the right of states to legislate marriage laws, a position that many Republicans did not seem to understand.

      This shift in thinking by Republicans away from the doctrine of states' rights may end up having a great effect on policy decisions of the Democratic Party, a party that has traditionally been very much in favor of a strong federal government. The reasons for this policy stem mainly from the fact that slavery and segregation have historically been the two main issues for which states' rights have been used as an argument. The need to distance a political party from such issues is clear, but, as the GOP has slowly abandoned its Federalist inheritance, unique opportunities seem to have arisen for the Democratic Party, were it to decide to claim the issue of states' rights as its own.

      If many of the country's most divisive issues had been state-decided issues, then voters in the most recent election would have been forced to look more closely at national issues, such as the situation in Iraq, which might have resulted in a win for Senator Kerry. Following the election, much was made about the number of voters who chose President Bush because of his stance on "moral values". If these issues, such as abortion, were decided on the state level, then they would drop out of national politics, ostensibly making it easier for Democrats to be elected. Proof of this can be seen through a policy mentioned above—the attempt to ban same-sex marriage on a national level. President Bush and his advisors knew that the divisive issue of gay marriage would not benefit them as a local issue. He knew that many Americans agreed with him in his stance concerning gay marriage, and that they would have had no reason to act on this accord if the issue were not forced to a national level of debate.

      Of course, it should not be forgotten that there are practical reasons for keeping many social issues at the national level. For instance, raising the national minimum wage would not impact states that already have high minimum wages, such as Massachusetts. Congressmen from Massachusetts, however, have recently pushed for such reforms out of a true concern for the people who might be living in states with low minimum wages. This sense of solidarity with the whole nation might be lost if more issues were handled locally.

      The Terri Schiavo case revealed to Americans some difficult realities regarding the rights of states in a larger nation. As Republicans have abandoned Federalism, it may be time for Democrats to adopt the policy. In time, it may become clear that solidarity with some of our friends in the red states will have to be sacrificed if Democrats are to use Federalism to gain more influence in national elections.

Front Page (April 14, 2005)

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