Stem Cells: Looks Like America Is in Bush's Corner

His principled decision on a complex issue is getting blasted only from the fringes -- which could help him down the road

By Richard S. Dunham

Sometimes, the deepest significance of a Presidential action lies not in the words that are spoken, but in the subsequent public reaction. I'm reminded of how President Clinton's empathetic response to the Oklahoma City bombing marked a turning point in his Presidency. In many ways, President Bush's Aug. 9 announcement of his position on federal funding of stem cell research was another such moment.

The most important thing to analyze in the aftermath of the President's compromise decision is not Bush's adequately delivered rendition of a well-written speech. It is the gut-level responses of both everyday Americans and the political community. Watching the parade of politicians heading for the microphones, I strongly believe Bush's speech was a Rorschach test of people's personal views of the President.

Whether they agreed or disagreed with his decision, the tone of the response reflected deeper feelings about this man -- feelings that give us a good sense of who Bush's friends and enemies will be for the remainder of his public life. On balance, the response is good news for the President.


  Bush's nemeses are easy to see. They are the right-wing fringe of the Republican Party and the hard-left edge of the Democratic Party. Listening to the bile spewed by pro-life absolutists like 2000 GOP Presidential candidates Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, it's easy to see that many social conservatives have never trusted Bush or believed for a second he's one of them. They've always viewed him as a calculating pretender who'll sell them out in pursuit of centrist swing voters. Bush's stem cell decision only reinforced their doubts.

On the left, Bush will never satisfy irreconcilables such as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who emphatically condemned the President's decision. "Once again, the President has done the bare minimum in order to try and publicly posture himself with the majority of Americans," Gephardt argued.

Gephardt is joined by many in the scientific community, but the wailing of House Democrats had a particularly strident note. Most seem unwilling to give Bush even a word of credit -- unless he totally surrenders to their point of view on any issue. Just ask Representative Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who declared, "Human stem cell research is not a political football to be kicked around. Anything short of full funding for all types of stem cell research will be a complete disappointment."


  Keep in mind, though, that polls taken after the speech showed these two groups of Bush detractors are relatively small. Only 13% of Americans said they opposed Bush's decision because it allowed even limited funding, while just 7% said they thought it was too restrictive. That puts Gephardt & Co. on the fringe.

Most Republicans opposed to abortion were disappointed with the President's half-a-loaf decision but were muted in their personal criticism of him. "Last month at the White House, President Bush looked me in the eye and told me that he would make a decision on stem cell research from his heart -- not from politics or polls -- and I believe he has," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who disagreed with Bush's conclusion.

Added House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.): "While I wouldn't reach the same conclusion...the President has made one of the most important decisions of this Administration through a fair and balanced deliberation that included prayer, reflection, science, ethics, and discussion."


  If Bush can maintain the respect of conservatives who consider his decision tantamount to state-sanctioned murder, he has little to fear from the party's base. Some pro-Bush pro-lifers even found reason to praise the compromise. James C. Dobson, president of Focus on the Family and Bauer's former mentor, applauded Bush's decision because the President would allow federal funding only in cases where embryos were already destroyed. "President Bush faced tremendous political pressure to destroy his pro-life commitment," said Dobson. "He has courageously upheld his promise to protect unborn children."

Even more satisfying to Bush has to be the reaction of some liberal and moderate backers of full federal funding of stem cell research. These muted responses ranged from actress and diabetes-research activist Mary Tyler Moore (who called the decision "a step in the right direction") to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (who praised the President's "genuine willingness to embrace the concept" of federal funding). Many advocates of full research funding seemed relieved that Bush did not exhibit knee-jerk obeisance to the loudest social conservatives. And they praised Bush for thinking deeply about the issue.

After consideringthe complex moral and ethical questions involved, I come to the same conclusion. Like Tom DeLay and J.C. Watts, I believe the President did his best to reconcile his religious views with the scientific realities of the 21st century. For this, he deserves credit.


  As a history major, I don't think history will view Bush's decision kindly. Organized religion has often protested against the perceived immorality of scientific advances, from heart surgery to polio vaccines. In 20 or 30 years, I am convinced, Bush will be seen as an old-fashioned fellow who slowed the march of scientific progress.

Having said that, as a political commentator, I think more favorably of President Bush in the aftermath of his decision. He has been accused of being in the bag of big-money contributors and corporate interests. But he proved with his stem cell decision that he's capable of thinking through complex subjects. And he is capable of articulating his reasoning before a national television audience. That will count for something when Election 2004 rolls around.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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