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How times have changed. Not so long ago, the Democratic Party was considered the party of big government and big spending.

George W. Bush has turned things upside down. Today, it’s Republicans who get the prize for big spending. Both the federal budget and the number of federal employees have grown bigger and faster under Bush than any other president. And the federal deficit, at $427 billion, is by far the largest ever. The day when Republicans could claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility is history.

At the same time, because of their butting into the Terri Schiavo case, Republicans also get the prize for big government – and for forcing government into areas where it does not belong.

In the latest USA Today-CNN poll, Americans, by a margin of 55 to 40 percent, say they believe the Republican Party – traditionally the party of limited government – is “trying to use the federal government to interfere with the private lives of most Americans” on moral issues. In the same survey, 53 percent say Democrats were not trying to do the same.

Those polled are also extremely negative on political pandering in the Schiavo matter. Seventy-six percent disapprove of how Congress jumped in at the last minute, forcing federal courts to take over the case; 53 percent disapprove of President Bush’s rushing back from Texas to sign the legislation in his pajamas. And by more than 2-1, 39 percent to 18 percent, Americans say the “religious right” has too much clout in the Bush administration.

The lesson is clear: What was gleefully undertaken as a big political plus for the Republican Party has already turned into a net political loss. Republicans should have known better. They should have realized that the vast majority of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, did not identify with the extreme religious wackos camped out in front of Terri Schiavo’s hospice.

Yes, Americans believe in life, but we also believe in the rule of law. Yes, we believe in government, but only within bounds established by the Founding Fathers. Yes, we believe in compassion, but at the same time we believe that politicians have no business sticking their noses into our personal lives, especially into that most painful of all decisions: whether to continue life support for a loved one. It was bad enough, sending cops into our bedrooms. Now they want to send cops into our hospital rooms, too. No way.

As bad as the CNN poll is for Republicans, things will only get worse. Why? Two words: Tom DeLay. The ethically challenged Texan – who recently practiced Republican family values by laundering $500,000 in corporate campaign contributions to his wife, by putting her on the campaign payroll – now vows revenge on judges who did not follow his orders by ordering Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube reinserted.

Schiavo’s body wasn’t even cold before DeLay issued his brazen threat to the judiciary:

This loss happened because our legal system didn’t protect the people who need protection most. And that will change. The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior. But not today. These judges are out of control. They thumbed their noses at Congress.

DeLay’s got it backward. It’s not the judges who are out of control. It’s the House majority leader. First, DeLay forced federal judges to take up the Terri Schiavo case. Now he’s waging war on them because, after they considered all the evidence, they didn’t make the decision he demanded.

It’s not judges who thumbed their noses at Congress. It’s Congress who thumbed their noses at the Constitution. Did anybody tell DeLay and company that judges don’t have to do what Congress tells them? Did they ever hear of the separation of powers? We haven’t seen such arrogance since the days of Newt Gingrich.

Both Vice President Dick Cheney and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have publicly rejected DeLay’s war on judges. But House Republicans seem determined to follow their leader off a cliff. They’re making a huge mistake. They should simply admit that the Terri Schiavo intervention was a well-meaning, perhaps, but nevertheless unwise and unconstitutional abuse of power.

The more Republicans beat the Terri Schiavo drum, the greater their attacks on judges, the longer they follow Tom DeLay, the more they pander to the religious right – the more the Republican Party will be seen as nothing but a subsidiary of the Christian Coalition. God save America.

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