"Embryonic stem-cell research offers both great promise and great peril. So I have decided we must proceed with great care."
--President Bush speaking about federal funding of fetal stem-cell research
Bush made everybody wait and kept everybody guessing for months about his decision whether to allow federal funding for the study of embryonic stem cells. And his answer, delivered with much fanfare from his vacation home on Thursday night, was more yes-and-no than yes or no. The president agreed to allow the government to fund research on over 60 fetal stem-cell lines that have already been developed, but not to authorize funding for research that would involve extracting stem cells from newly obtained embryos.
So all the pro- and anti-research activists, as well as the talking heads, who were panting with expectation over the president's speech are finally getting their chance to react.
Strict adherents to antiabortion orthodoxy were particularly harsh. "This is a tragedy and a disaster," said Gary Bauer, one of the Christian conservatives who challenged Bush in last year's presidential primaries. In an interview with MSNBC.com, Bauer raised the slippery-slope argument, claiming that Bush had opened a door that he wouldn't be able to close. "What is the president going to say when the scientists run into a roadblock and need fresh samples? What is the moral basis from which the president can argue 'no' when he's already given up the central fact, which is that these are innocent human lives?"
Bush may also have lost ground among the conservative Catholic voters that he's been courting heavily for months. "The trade-off he has announced is morally unacceptable," said Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It allows our nation's research enterprise to cultivate a disrespect for human life."
In the political arena, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., echoed those concerns to CNN. "One area I'm concerned about is that he's opening up these fields for research because it goes into the very fundamental issue about what is a human," Brownback said. "If it's a life, we should treat it as such, not some sort of medical commodity."
Word leaked early that Bush was aiming for compromise on the issue, so the conservative National Review expressed its anguish two hours before the president opened his mouth. Labeling Bush's decision "A Bitter Loss," the Review declared that Bush's "pro-life supporters will be bitterly disappointed -- and have good cause to be."
The National Right to Life Council, a die-hard Bush supporter since the early days of the 2000 presidential primaries, surprisingly voiced support for the compromise. "We are delighted that President Bush's decision prevents the federal government from becoming a party to any further killing of human embryos for medical experimentation," said NRLC spokeswoman Laura Echevarria. "While National Right to Life mourns the loss of life for those embryos from whom stem-cell lines have already been derived, nothing the National Right to Life Committee or President Bush can do can restore the lives of those embryos who have already died."
It's not a huge surprise that he won over usual Bush-cheerleader Andrew Sullivan, even though Sullivan has come out against stem-cell funding. Sullivan does, however, score Bush low for his performance: "The president's television demeanor for tonight's stem-cell address suggests he's getting worse at these television sit-downs, not better. He did the Bambi thing again; he seemed stiff as a post; the speech was without a single moment of grace or ease," Sullivan writes. "That said, Bush's decision strikes me as politically smart and ethically defensible." But he can't forgive the speech's pedestrian quality: "What beats me is why on such an important speech, Bush didn't get one of his truly talented speechwriters to craft a statement that could truly persuade and engage. Did Karen Hughes write this, as I read today? I'm sorry but she can't write her way out of a paper bag."
Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, quoted by the New York Post, deducted style points for Bush's uneasy delivery. "I think he hasn't yet grown into the suit he's wearing, but I think he did the best he could," McMahon said.
Some Democrats, though, offered muted praise of the president's position, calling it evidence that he was cautiously showing some independence from his party's right wing. "He was obviously trying to thread a very fine needle," said John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under the Clinton administration. "I think he took a baby step toward the center."
That step was way too small, as far as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League was concerned. "The President tonight offered a weak and limited compromise on stem cell research," said the organization's president, Kate Michelman, in a statement released Thursday evening. "In an attempt to politically straddle the issue, the President has pleased no one. The country was looking for bold and confident leadership. Instead, America got a tepid proposal that offers little hope to the millions who suffer from life-threatening diseases."
Even some in Bush's own party who favor stem-cell research seemed to agree with that assessment. That was the opinion Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., expressed in an interview with MSNBC. "I don't think the scientific community is going to accept this," he said. "I think the patient advocacy groups are going to be disappointed." That view was confirmed by Mark Frankel, director of the scientific freedom, responsibility and law program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Washington Post quoted him as saying, "These restrictions may well have implications for our ability to generate certain kinds of knowledge."
The New York Times stopped just short of slapping Bush with the "wimp" label that plagued his father in an editorial titled "President Bush Waffles." "Last night George W. Bush had one of those rare opportunities a president gets to take a bold step that might define his administration," the piece begins. "Instead, he ducked." The Times slams the president for paying greater heed to his political masters on the right wing than to scientific evidence that embryonic stem-cell research has incredible potential. "Disappointed Americans who had hoped for a more courageous conclusion may wind up wondering if his real concern was a perpetual fear of offending the Republican Party's right-wing base," it concludes.
Thanks to the miracle of instant polling, we have at least the morning-after impression the president made on the American people. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll taken overnight shows that 50 percent of the public approve of his decision.
Friday schedule: The president will spend his seventh day of vacation on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
This day in Bush history
Aug. 10, 1989: The Financial Times of London reports that President Bush has signed off on a $20 billion package to bail out the nation's ailing savings-and-loan industry. Bush called it a "first, crucial step towards restoring public confidence. You will not be the victim of others' mistakes. We will guarantee that your insured deposits are secure."
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