More MS news articles for July 2001

Unexpected Priority: Stem Cell Research's Rise as a Test for Bush

Thursday, July 12, 2001

WASHINGTON, July 13 The debate about research on embryonic stem cells has traveled in just a month's time from relative obscurity to magazine-cover ubiquity, and, many political analysts and lawmakers say it has become a defining issue of President Bush's first year in office.

With social conservatives imploring Mr. Bush to withhold federal support for the research and moderates pushing him to permit it, he faces a decision that could fix his place on the political spectrum more firmly than anything he has done to date.

Both Republicans and Democrats said that for many voters, the course Mr. Bush charts would be interpreted as a indicator of the extent to which he feels bound to the right or, alternately, is willing to reach toward the center.

During a period when some polls have shown a drop in Mr. Bush's approval ratings and he could use more support from moderates than he seems to have, his decision could shape voters' attitudes toward him in crucial ways, analysts said.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to grow into any cell or tissue, holding promise for repairing and replacing damaged organs. The research draws opposition from religious conservatives, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, because it results in the destruction of embryos.

The issue's potency is reflected in the months of meetings that Mr. Bush has devoted to it and the frequency with which it pops up in conversations around the West Wing. Several White House officials said that stem cell research has provoked as much formal and casual discussion as anything since Mr. Bush's inauguration nearly six months ago.

Several lawmakers characterized the issue as something of a litmus test for Mr. Bush.

"It's an opportunity for him, having fully established his conservative credentials, to establish compassionate credentials," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who supports the research.

Ms. Collins said the issue was also an opportunity for Mr. Bush "to show a degree of independence" from social conservatives in his party.

John Weaver, a senior political aide to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said that the way Mr. Bush acted on this issue, along with his handling of a patients' bill of rights, could speak powerfully to "a perception, and I'm not saying it's fair, that this administration is too tied to corporate interests and very conservative."

Mr. Weaver added that Mr. Bush's actions could "lock some of those perceptions down permanently among voters or, if the administration goes in a different direction, could soften those perceptions."

Administration officials have said that Mr. Bush will most likely make a decision on the research financing before the end of July. If he withholds or severely restricts federal support, the decision may be seen as more ideological than, say, his ban on federal funds for overseas groups that provide abortion-related counseling, because many abortion opponents support the stem-cell research.

"We're into new territory here," one senior administration official said. "It doesn't slice nice."

This official and others said the issue was complicated enough and stirred enough passion that the only sure benefit Mr. Bush could wring from his decision was a public perception that he reached it thoughtfully.

To that end, the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, has repeatedly said that Mr. Bush was listening to every viewpoint and taking a deeply "deliberative" approach.

Mr. Bush has received contradictory political analyses. Some prominent Republicans contend that a permissive decision on the research will not be enough to win over moderates, so he would be wisest to stay with his conservative base. According to this thinking, only conservatives can be trusted to reward him.

Other Republicans who advise the administration see serious political danger for Mr. Bush, at this particular juncture, if he reinforces the most socially conservative aspects of his image.

"If he goes and refuses to use stem-cell research if he bans it then I think he will look more rigid and inflexible than he wants to," said one Republican strategist who often speaks with administration officials.

Another administration adviser said: "It's a defining issue. If the administration can find a middle ground, they can really move people's impressions of him as a very conservative president."

Several people familiar with the White House deliberations said Mr. Bush might not feel completely tethered to a campaign position of seemingly unwavering opposition to the research.

Conversely, some administration officials are studying scientific arguments against the research, apparently in the hope of justifying a ban on the research along those lines.

The argument would be that similarly controversial research on fetal tissue has not yielded measurable progress and that doctors are intrigued by the promise of stem cells derived from body fat that do not involve the destruction of embryos.

There have been no clear hints of what Mr. Bush will decide.

David Gergen, a longtime political strategist who has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations, said the president's prolonged contemplation of the issue suggested he was moving beyond his thinking during the campaign.

"Why would he delay otherwise?" Mr. Gergen asked. "Why would he go through this process that is only raising the political price of any decision? I don't think the public was paying much attention to it just three to four weeks ago."

Polls generally show much more public support than opposition to federal funding of the research, but they also suggest that people are still sifting through their feelings and can be swayed one way or the other. Partly for that reason, some political analysts contend that Mr. Bush can safely make any decision he likes, as long as he articulates it well.

"The president has a great deal of flexibility," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. Mr. McInturff added that by his reading of current polls, "I don't see any evidence that he's been pushed beyond a comfortable center-right majority of this country."

On his tax cut and education plan, Mr. Bush has indeed attracted significant Democratic support. But he has alienated many moderate voters with his positions and actions on environmental issues.

"Swing voters are moving away from him," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster. "So this is the time when he really has to make key decisions." Foremost among them, Mr. Schoen said, was federal support for embryonic stem cells research.

Little more than a month ago, the public interest in it was minimal.

"Now it's an avalanche," said Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who supports the research. "It's just overwhelming."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company