Stem cells and the American middle

President Barack Obama is applauded by members of Congress, and others, after signing an Executive Order on stem cell research in Washington on Monday. (Ron Edmonds/Associated Press)


I'm on the road at the moment, catching the news on the fly, so brevity will be required today, as well as tomorrow. Fortunately, the political dimensions of President Obama's executive order expanding federally-financed embryonic stem-cell research can be assessed in relatively few words.

Most striking, in the wake of yesterday's announcement, was the reaction of House Republican leader John Boehner. He insisted in a statement that Obama, by reversing the longstanding Bush administration curbs on science, was "further dividing our nation." The problem with Boehner's remark, however, was that it signified a fundamental misreading of public opinion. Far from being "divided" on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research, most Americans have generally agreed, for a number of years, that more such research is needed, and that the government should have a role in financing it.

Among the countless surveys, Gallup has reported that 62 percent of Americans consider the research "morally acceptable," and a Time survey has put that figure at 70 percent. In January, the ABC News-Washington Post poll reported that nearly six in 10 Americans supported a greater federal role in stem-cell research; three years ago, the NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey (conducted jointly by a Democratic pollster and a GOP pollster) reported that 68 percent support a greater federal role. Other surveys have found less support for an expanded federal role - with percentages in the low 50s - but it is still the majority position. That's largely because of the unswerving majority support among swing-voting independents.

Even Bush seemed mindful of prevailing public opinion when he announced his federal curbs on research back in the summer of 2001. Lest we forget, his decision actually ticked off a lot of conservatives, who oppose stem-cell research on moral grounds. They felt that Bush had wimped out. They had wanted the president to ban all federally-financed research, but Bush had tried for a compromise worthy of Solomon. He decreed that federal research could continue on lines of stem cells that were already in existence at the time, since the embryos from which they had been extracted had already been destroyed. Conservatives didn't like this, and some of them hit Bush with the ultimate insult, complaining that his compromise was "Clintonesque." I took Bush's compromise as a signal that he was at least somewhat mindful of the American middle.

Indeed, Obama's decision to reverse Bush yesterday was aimed at (and spoke for) the center of the electorate. It's politics 101: He who seizes the center holds the power. Boehner's reaction was merely fresh evidence that the Republicans are stuck on the sidelines. By claiming that Obama was "dividing" the country, Boehner was not communicating with the center; rather, he was commiserating with the party's conservative base.

The GOP leaders at this point have no choice but to reassure their base followers that they still share the same principles; after all, a minority party can't rebuild unless it can secure its base. The problem is that, on the hot-button issue of stem-cell research, the base is demonstrably out of step with the American middle. Yesterday, the guy with the biggest megaphone basically came out in favor of easing the suffering of millions of sick people (or so he framed the issue), while Boehner basically sounded as if he was saying No.

And by doing so, he advertised anew the GOP's slide to the margins.