As I watched President Bush explain today why he vetoed the popular bill that would have expanded embryonic stem-cell research ("I'm not going to allow it!"), I realized that this episode does have a potential political upside for the GOP (notwithstanding everything I wrote yesterday). That scenario goes something like this:
The Democrats, with an eye on the '06 elections, are constantly inveighing against what they call "the rubber stamp Republicans," suggesting that the GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill basically march in step with The Decider -- and therefore deserve to be defeated in November. But the stem-cell episode undercuts that argument. In May 2005, when the House decisively passed the stem-cell bill, 50 of 230 Republicans voted Yes for passage. And yesterday, when the Senate decisively followed suit, 19 of 54 Republicans voted Yes for passage. The 19 defectors included anti-abortion stalwarts Bill Frist, Trent Lott, Orrin Hatch, and John Warner, all of whom saw expanded embryonic stem-cell research as a "pro-life" initiative.
Today, we also saw some anti-lockstep behavior in the Republican House. Witness Curt Weldon, the longtime Republican congressman who represents a suburban Philadelphia district that has been slowly trending Democratic. Weldon is in a tougher than expected re-election race. Last year, he voted NO on the expansion of stem-cell research. But today, he said he intended to vote YES, in favor of overriding Bush's veto. Clearly he thinks that fighting with with Bush on this issue could be a political boon back home; in defying Bush, he emailed this message today: "I find it difficult to look a mother or father in the eye who has a sick child and tell them I didn't do everything in my power to try to help them find a cure for their child."
Bush stood against all these dissenting Republicans today, but that's the point: By publicly disagreeing on such a high-stakes issue, they've all demonstrated (at least in this instance) that the GOP's game is not simply a matter of Follow the Leader. That might not be a comfort to families suffering from debilitating diseases and hoping that America might lead the world in medical advances, but a GOP "big tent" talking point might be enough to blunt the Democrats' "rubber stamp" line.
By the way, I don't think it's worth spending a lot of time talking about how this is Bush's first veto, and about how historic that is because only Thomas Jefferson waited as long to nix a bill. The moment is overrated, because, lest we forget, Bush has become a master of the "signing statement." Instead of vetoing bills that he has disliked during the past five years, he has opted instead to sign them into law and append statements indicating that he reserved the right not to obey them. He has reportedly done this 750 times, a number that far exceeds the 575 signing statements issued by all his predecessors combined.