Too Much Principle, Not Enough Politics

The Senate has joined the House in enacting, by a wide margin, legislation to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. I’m not an expert on this subject, but my impression is that the issue has very little to do with science, and a great deal to do with politics. The benefits of embryonic stem cell research have been vastly oversold, and I believe there is little reason to think that embryonic stem cells are likely to yield more medical benefits than other stem cells. And, in any event, I would rather see pharmaceutical companies carry out this kind of research than the federal government.

But the politics of the issue are deadly for conservative Republicans. Because of poor reporting and misleading headlines, I suspect that most Americans do not understand that “embryonic stem cells” is not synonymous with “stem cells,” nor are they aware of the considerable doubts among many scientists about the benefits of this research. And many believe that what is at issue is a federal “ban” on embryonic research, not federal funding of such research.

In early 2005, the Republicans were riding high. President Bush had just won big over John Kerry, and the party had gained seats in Congress for the third election in a row. The party’s momentum was derailed, I think, by the Terry Schiavo fiasco and, to a lesser extent, by the embryonic stem cell issue. I don’t recall now the context in which stem cells were then in the news, and I’m not normally an adherent of the “taxi driver theory” of political polling. But I was struck at the time by the fact that several taxi drivers told me they had soured on the Republicans because of “stem cells.” The Republicans never regained their momentum (or their approval ratings) after the missteps of early 2005.

As I’ve said before, one of President Bush’s most striking attributes is his determination to do what he thinks is right, regardless of political consequences. When dealing with issues of great moment, that is a noble quality. But when dealing with issues that are almost purely symbolic, like this one, it may be merely foolish. Expanding federal funding to include research on “leftover” embryos is not an issue of great import; it is a political trap laid by the President’s enemies. I don’t think it makes any sense to fall into it. And for this minor issue to be the occasion for the President’s first veto strikes me as worse than odd.

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