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.