The Politics of Science

6 minute read
Karen Tumulty/Washington

The politics of stem-cell research, just like the science of it, is turning out to be far more complicated than either side would like you to think. From the press releases, fund-raising appeals and victory cries that were going up in the hours after President George W. Bush used his veto for the first time, it may have looked as though the Democrats had finally found their golden issue–and a social one at that. “With one stroke of his pen,” declared Democratic chairman Howard Dean, “President Bush has once again denied hope to millions of Americans and their families who suffer from diabetes, spinal-cord injuries and Alzheimer’s.” Added Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey: “This will be remembered as a Luddite moment in American history.”

Democrats were right about one thing. The issue has put Republicans in an uncomfortable spot. White House press secretary Tony Snow apologized last week for saying that Bush considers stem-cell research “murder,” explaining that his earlier comment was “overstating the President’s position.” That rectification came after White House chief of staff Josh Bolten endured an inquisition on Meet the Press, in which host Tim Russert demanded to know whether the President’s stance against destroying embryos applied not just to federal funding of stem-cell research but also to shutting down the entire field of in vitro fertilization. The answer was a sort-of no.

But so far at least, stem-cell research hasn’t rewritten the electoral equation the way many Democrats had hoped it would. The most telling indicator, as always, is how candidates and interest groups are spending their money. A week after the veto, campaign strategists in both parties said they didn’t know of a single state or congressional district where a candidate was running an ad on the issue. Only one independent organization, the liberal Campaign to Defend the Constitution, has run national advertising about it, buying $250,000 worth of ads in the New York Times and an additional $100,000 worth online.

Democrats say it is still early and promise that their candidates will be talking more about the stem-cell issue–and pouring money into it–in the fall, especially in a handful of crucial suburban races outside Philadelphia, Chicago and Denver. And even before then, stem cells have played a role in the swing state of Missouri, which had been trending Republican. The business establishment, which wants to promote the state as a center for biotechnology with research hubs in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia, last year was instrumental in putting on the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would prevent the legislature from blocking stem-cell research. The move, which attracted a record $16 million from biotechnology advocates, ran up against one of the strongest state pro-life movements in the country. It should come as no surprise, then, that the fight has spilled over into what is shaping up to be a tight Senate race between Republican incumbent Jim Talent and Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill, one of the contests that Democrats hope will tip the balance of the Senate.

In Missouri, though, stem-cell research is only one issue in a target-rich environment for Democrats: McCaskill is spending more time talking about the Iraq war and Republican corruption than about Talent’s opposition to stem-cell research. And as she campaigns in conservative rural areas, McCaskill is making the issue more of a test of Talent’s character than of his ideology, pointing to instances in which he has waffled in his opposition. So it’s hard to predict how much the stem-cell question will figure in the Senate race’s outcome.

And yet, on the face of it, stem-cell research would seem to have all the makings of a perfect wedge issue. In nearly every poll, voters say they disagree with the President’s veto by about a 2-to-1 ratio. Almost half of those surveyed in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week said that either they or someone in their family suffers from one of the conditions–cancer, Parkinson’s disease, juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal-cord injuries or heart disease–for which stem-cell research is believed to hold the greatest promise. “There are a lot of things we do here [in Washington] that don’t touch people directly. This one does,” says Congressman Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But to make a wedge issue work, it helps to have a crisis–or, as the gay-marriage issue showed, to manufacture one. As private research continues even without federal funds and Governors like California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger rush in to fill the void with state money, voters end up concluding that Bush’s veto is not likely to prevent science from going forward in some way. Unlike issues like abortion and gay marriage, the stem-cell debate is seen by few people as one of moral absolutes. While Americans overwhelmingly disagree with Bush’s action, they give him credit for having acted on conviction and not politics, though Republicans have made no secret of their hopes that it could help rally their dispirited base.

In the meantime, stem-cell research is moving into areas where Americans are likely to have stronger moral qualms about it. Most voters don’t object to destroying embryos that would otherwise be discarded, but far more of them are ambivalent when it comes to what scientists have taken to calling “somatic cell nuclear transfer”–a term researchers use to avoid the more incendiary word cloning, even though it is the same technology that created Dolly the sheep. “A lot of Americans way beyond the religious right are going to be troubled by some of the implications of all this,” says influential conservative activist Gary Bauer. “Science is just running a lot faster than our moral discussion of it.”

Nor does the recent history of stem-cell politics offer much encouragement to research advocates. The issue didn’t help John Kerry much in 2004, though he gave Ron Reagan a prominent speaking spot at the Democratic Convention and appeared frequently in the final months of the campaign with actor-activist Christopher Reeve’s widow Dana. A poll conducted by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation shortly after the presidential election found that more than half of Bush’s voters favored broadening the federal policy to include using embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics–but voted for him anyway. That is probably because only 2% of voters identified stem-cell research as the most important factor in their decision, compared with 16% who cited terrorism and 13% who mentioned the Iraq war.

This year is not likely to be different. What is different is the climate in which the issue hits the electorate. “The Republican Party and the Congress have significant political problems looming,” says Bauer. “But I would not put this as one of the things that have them in a hole.” Then again, it won’t dig them out of one either.

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