President Bush launched his second term proclaiming that he and his Republican colleagues would create an "ownership society" in America. If he meant anything at all by this--beyond deploying it as a euphemism to gull the public into thinking that privatizing Social Security would benefit the average American--he meant that he hoped to transform the role of government, using it to empower, rather than constrain, individual citizens in their ability to make meaningful decisions about their personal lives. Giving people a greater stake in the decision-making process, Bush proclaimed, would lead them to make more responsible decisions about themselves and their families.

Power to the people, Republican style. It sounds wunderbar, until we look at how Bush and his fellow Republican politicos have turned the personal family tragedy of Terri Schiavo into the latest stalking horse for intrusive federal government, Christian-right style.

The case of Terri Schiavo, who has spent the last 15 years in a "persistent vegetative state," is a sad and tragic case. Her husband, Michael, says Terri would not have wanted to be kept alive by artificial means, though her grieving parents cling to hope that she might improve with time, in spite of the fact that court-appointed neurologists have said her condition is irreversible.

Then again, on its merits, it's no more sad or tragic than thousands of other similar cases that have become close to routine in an environment where medical professionals have found ever more clever ways to use technology to prolong the survival of the body even when the person that inhabited that body is all but gone. Those old enough will recall the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, whose family had to battle to remove her from a respirator in 1976.

The only thing that makes it more tragic is that cynical Republican politicians, sensing a low-cost opportunity to score political points with the most zealous right-to-lifers, have turned a brain-damaged woman into a political prop. They have interjected the federal government in a place--according to their own states'-rights principles--it does not belong. It's hard to imagine a more important personal decision than when to pull the plug--or, in this case, the feeding tube. If you don't own that, you don't really own your own life.

And yet, President Ownership Society and his privatization posse have spent the last several days in a frenzied bid to wrest ownership of that decision from Terri Schiavo's husband, her rightful legal guardian, and from the Florida courts that have consistently backed his decision. In a fit of legislative legerdemain, they forced the Schiavo case into the federal courts (on Tuesday morning, a federal judge refused to order Shiavo's feeding tube reinserted).

The concept of an ownership society is not the only principle the Republicans have abandoned. What about that other shibboleth of Republican social policy, the sanctity of traditional marriage? Suddenly, it appears, Bush, Frist et al. are advocates of group marriage. They want to redefine the institution, from the union of one man and one woman to the union of one man, one woman, a couple of parents, a few federal judges, and Tom DeLay. Let's hope none of the judges turn out to be gay.

But if the Schiavo case reveals that Republicans are willing to sell out their professed principles to score politically with their base, it has also shown that Democrats have no principles at all. In a breathtaking display of gutlessness, not a single Democratic senator stood in the way of the Republican effort to intervene in the case; Tom Harkin and Harry Reid actively worked to push the bill through. It makes even less sense because the public is not on the side of the Republicans. According to an ABC poll, 63 percent supported the removal of the feeding tube, and 70 percent opposed congressional intervention.

And where is Howard Dean when you need him? Apparently, he's been gagged by the Democratic establishment. The doctor from Vermont did tell reporters in Tennessee that the Schiavo case "is a deeply personal matter and ought to be left up to physicians," but compare that to what he said as a presidential candidate in Tallahassee in 2003: "I am tired of people in the legislature thinking they have an M.D. when what they really have is a B.S.!"