Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Most call it hope for millions, Bush calls it "murder"

The Republican-led Senate has spoken -- today, by a 63-37 vote, it passed a bill expanding federally-financed stem cell research --and now President Bush must decide whether he sides with the religious and social conservatives who oppose that research, or with the clear majority of his fellow citizens.

Actually, he has already made up his mind -- his heart is with his political base -- which means that, when he issues the first veto of his presidency, he will be defying the medical community, the scientific community, 41 Nobel laureates, hundreds of citizen health groups, Nancy Reagan, and the millions of Americans who see value in doing the advanced research that could pioneer new treatments for serious diseases.

The stem-cell issue, which has been debated for the past several days, is a textbook example of the fundamental divide within the Republican party. Potentially, as the '06 election draws near, this issue is political poison for the GOP, although that assumes the Democrats would know what to do with the gift that is about to be placed in their perpetually tremulous hands.

The issue itself -- spending taxpayers' money to conduct research on diseases by using stem cells taken from human embryos -- is broadly popular among moderate Republicans, centrist Republicans, and probably conservative Republicans whose loved ones suffer from serious illness. Two years ago, a University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey reported that 53 percent of Republicans nationwide support stem-cell research. Last year, a CBS poll reported a GOP plurality in favor of such research, 46 percent to 42 percent. The overall national percentage of Americans favoring stem-cell work is as high as 70 percent.

Even Senate Republican leader and presidential hopeul Bill Frist (anxious to repair his medical bona fides after that episode when he offered his video diagnosis of Terri Schiavo) strongly pushed the bill to expand stem-cell research. But, within the GOP base, the religious and social conservatives say thumbs-down - and they still hold sway at the White House. Bush and his lieutenants remain dedicated to keeping them happy, especially during the runup to congressional elections that will require a strong base turnout.

So the White House position is that Bush will veto this measure -- already passed last year by the Republican House, normally a bastion of pro-Bush sentiment -- and thus sustain the tight restrictions that Bush himself imposed on federal stem-cell research back in August 2001.

It's hard to see how the GOP can emerge from this episode politically unscathed. In the wake of Bush's expected veto -- which would probably be upheld, since two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber would be needed to override him -- independent and moderate swing voters may well conclude that Bush considers his fealty to the religious right to be more important than the health of millions of Americans.

A Bush veto could also put the political squeeze on conservative senators such as Jim Talent, who voted today against the stem-cell research bill. His re-election in Missouri is being threatened this year because swing-voting Missourians appear to be siding with stem cells and science. It's noteworthy that last weekend the national Democrats chose Talent's opponent, Claire McCaskill, to deliver the party's Saturday radio address.

Another potentially vulnerable senator is Rick Santorum, who's already trailing Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. by double digits in the polls, and who also voted NO today on stem-cell research. To survive in November, he'll need at least minimally respectable support out of the populous suburbs -- but that's where stem-cell research is broadly popular, and where Bush-style social conservatism is not. As Kenneth Davis, a county GOP chairman in the Philadelphia suburbs, told me a couple years ago, stem-cell research "is something everyone can relate to, because everyone has a story about a loved-one's illness." (Casey also broadly opposes using federal money on expanded stem-cell research; on the other hand, his party is far more supportive of the idea than Bush's GOP.)

Bush has long viewed his willingness to defy majority sentiment as an asset; in the words of press secretary Tony Snow the other day, "People like leadership much better than a finger in the wind." But in this case, the leader has misrepresented some of the facts. Bush claimed, in a White House message the other day, that the stem-cell bill "would use Federal taxpayer dollars to support and encourage the destruction of human life for research.” In reality, the stem cells covered by the bill have been specifically created for in-vitro fertilization, are no longer needed and, if not used for research purposes, would be discarded anyway as medical waste. Frist also described the bill this way, in a Washington Post op-ed column this morning.

But the White House is not interested in such nuance; as Snow put it today, "the simple answer is, he thinks murder's wrong." (Snow has only been at the White House a few months, but he's already starting to talk like Bush.)

By all accounts, a Bush veto thus presents Democrats with an electoral opportunity. Many Republicans recognize this; a northeastern party official told CNN today that the stem-cell issue is a "stinker" for the GOP, because "when you're portrayed as arguing against treatment of disease, it's a tough place to be politically."

As political columnist Jules Witcover notes here, even Democratic leaders acknowledge that they have failed in recent connections to connect with the day-to-day concerns of average voters. Yet as the polls demonstrate, the stem-cell issue already clicks with the concerns of average voters. Cancer, MS, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, among many other crippling diseases, attack Americans across the ideological divide.

Therefore, the question is whether the Democrats can manage to invoke the Bush veto and rhetorically contend that the president is "out of the mainstream," that he is "against" improving the health and reducing the suffering of his fellow citizens. Even Bill Frist referred to the stem-cell bill as "preserving life," so what does opposition to the bill imply?

The Democrats will undoubtedly some attack lines during the (probably futile) effort later this week to override the expected veto. Suffice it to say that Karl Rove, if working for the other team, could craft this one in his sleep.