Stem Cell Politics: Advantage, Republicans

Joseph M. Knippenberg

July 1, 2006

As I watched the debate over stem cells in Washington last week, I was struck by the Democrats’ confidence that this could be a winning issue for them in the fall elections. Yes, in recent years public support for stem cell research has increased, albeit only modestly since the 2004 election. But, aside from the fact that other issues—Iraq, the Middle East, and security policy generally—are likely to overshadow this one, I suspect that the Democrats will not be successful in framing it in a manner that will help their electoral prospects at the margins.

When it comes to the ensuing political debate, both parties have strengths and weaknesses. It strikes me, however, that the Republican weaknesses are ultimately less damaging to the party’s fall prospects than are the Democrats’, assuming (in the latter case) that their opponents can effectively exploit them.

The greatest Republican strength is President Bush’s evident willingness to stand unwaveringly on principle. He articulated a nuanced position back in 2001 and continues to defend it in thoughtful and measured tones:

As science brings us ever closer to unlocking the secrets of human biology, it also offers temptations to manipulate human life and violate human dignity. Our conscience and history as a nation demand that we resist this temptation. America was founded on the principle that we are all created equal, and endowed by our Creator with the right to life. We can advance the cause of science while upholding this founding promise. We can harness the promise of technology without becoming slaves to technology. And we can ensure that science serves the cause of humanity instead of the other way around.

He stands squarely in an American tradition stretching all the way back to the Declaration of Independence, authored by that noted fundamentalist Thomas Jefferson. Yes, his position is supported by religious conservatives, but it is articulated in a way that depends entirely on the self-evident truths upon which this nation is founded.

Of course, those principles leave room for reasonable disagreement in their prudential application. Men and women of goodwill—including some of the President’s staunchest supporters, like Senators Bill Frist and Orrin Hatch—could disagree with the way in which the President has attempted to balance the considerations of scientific progress and moral line-drawing. Quite appropriately, however, President Bush doesn’t demonize these opponents, nor do they demonize him.

I’m not certain that this division in the ranks is actually a Republican weakness. An anti-Bush stance on this issue might well cost Republican candidates a few votes, but Democrats will have a hard time making any political hay out of it in those elections.

And I think that the Democrats have to take care how they attack those who support the President on this ground in the fall. To put it mildly, their early efforts, if continued, would likely do them more harm than good. Indeed, if the Republicans don’t turn the tables on the Democrats who uttered these outrageous statements, they don’t have what it takes to retain their majorities in the House and the Senate.

Here, for example, is Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s response:

The veto is not based on constitutional or legal objections, Harkin said. “He is vetoing it because he says he believes it is immoral,” Harkin said. “Mr. President, you are not our moral ayatollah, maybe the president nothing more.”

To imply, as Harkin does, that there is no room for morality, or moral debate, in politics puts him outside the traditions of the Democratic and Republican Parties. He should be asked to explain himself, and be hammered if he doesn’t backtrack. Other Democrats, especially those who, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, have argued that “the budget is a moral document,” need to be asked whether they agree with Harkin.

Then there’s this from Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette:

“I don’t know who decided they were God and that Congress could not fund this research because their religious thinking trumps the national consensus,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill.

Democrats have been working hard to find a way to reach out to religious moderates, not just in the mainline Protestant churches, whose (declining) membership have been trending in their direction, but also among evangelicals. And they have sought to win back the allegiance of Roman Catholics, who may in fact have provided a substantial portion of President Bush’s margin of victory in 2004. Demonizing conscientious opponents of fetal stem cell research isn’t going to help, however well it plays among those who want to banish religion from the public square.

And then there are the roll-calls in Congress, which show more than two-thirds of House Democrats voting against a bill to promote further research on adult pluripotent stem cells—the only research, by the way, that actually offers current therapeutic benefits. Democrats who say they care about finding cures for horrible diseases are going to have to explain why they opposed a measure that won unanimous support in the Senate. Their current explanation—politics—won’t wash, especially when compared with a president standing on principle and dedicated to finding ethical ways to pursue and promote scientific progress. The other option—that they are in fact the “party of death” seems even less appealing.

And I’m not sure that saying that they were against it before they were for it will be compelling either.

Here, for me, is the bottom line. Republicans have a position that is morally complicated (and hence perhaps a little harder to explain), but politically simple. Democrats have a position that is morally simple, but complicated by their political gyrations. I’d rather be in the position of having patiently and repeatedly to explain my moral position, than in the position of explaining how my political strategy trumps my moral position.

Advantage: Republicans, if only they can take it.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.