Finally, a wedge issue for Democrats?

The ongoing fight over stem cells has divided the GOP. Fifty House Republicans disregarded party leaders and helped Democrats pass legislation to remove restrictions George W. Bush had imposed on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, which scientists believe could lead to treatments and cures for many diseases. The intraparty debate was so impassioned that two Republican Congressmen on opposing sides engaged in a shoving match. Even though Bush called expanded stem cell research unethical and threatened to veto the legislation–which would be his first veto–antiabortion Republicans Orrin Hatch and Gordon Smith vowed to press ahead with a Senate version. Arlen Specter, another Republican senator championing this research, claimed his side could mobilize enough senators to defeat a filibuster threatened by GOP social conservatives and to reject Bush’s veto. (The House majority was not veto-proof.) Meanwhile, the religious right–already furious that Republican senators had not nuked the judicial filibuster–accused antiabortion Republicans who advocate stem cell research of betraying the cause. Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council warned that his and other like-minded groups would no longer accord these Republicans 100 percent ratings. And the dust-up caused House majority leader Tom DeLay to return to Schiavo-style rhetoric. He called stem cell research–which uses cells extracted from leftover blastocysts (early embryos composed of 100 or so cells) stored in fertility clinics–“the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings.”

Four years ago, Bush was able to straddle the line on stem cells. In a speech, he declared he had reached a Solomonic compromise. He would permit federal underwriting of research that used only pre-existing stem cell lines; he would not allow federally funded scientists to work with new lines, for that would condone (if not encourage) the continued destruction of blastocysts. Bush claimed that sixty lines were available, sufficient to support vigorous research. But there were only a dozen lines–not enough for effective research–and most were tainted by mouse DNA. But this stance enabled Bush to avoid taking a yes-or-no position on an issue that pits his social conservative base against popular opinion, which strongly backs stem cell research.

Now the sides are clearer, thanks to the efforts of Representatives Mike Castle, a Republican, and Diana DeGette, a Democrat, who pushed the issue to a vote in the House. “We’ve forced a frank debate,” DeGette says, “and we’ve shown that the leadership of the Republican Party is controlled by a small slice of right-wing zealots.” Bush and DeLay enthusiastically sided with the theocons. But not all GOPers are grateful for this opportunity. Senate majority leader Bill Frist–who has had other troubles lately (being outflanked on the nuclear option by John McCain, inartfully handling the John Bolton nomination)–has signaled that he’s not eager to bring the Senate version to a vote. A probable GOP presidential contender, Frist is caught between his need to placate the Dobsonite wing of the party and his desire to appeal to less extreme voters. Senator George Allen, another GOP White House wannabe, has been recalibrating–that is, diluting–his previous support for this research.

The stem cell controversy sets Republican against Republican and distances party leaders from popular sentiment. Voters yearning for cures to awful diseases that could affect their own families have reason–perhaps for the first time–to feel threatened by the social cons and their GOP allies. But does this debate pose a short-term or strategic hazard for Republicans? “A growing number of Republican House members believe this could be an issue in 2006,” DeGette says, “and moderate Republicans are crazed about that.” But Matt Dowd, Bush’s chief campaign strategist in 2004, notes that it’s “too early” to declare stem cells a wedge issue: “To get to that level, a large segment of the population has to have an emotional stake in the issue. And stem cells has not yet risen to the level of gay marriage or abortion. It’s more of an intellectual thing, not an everyday concern.” Nor is he worried about next year’s Congressional races. Look at the Kerry-Bush contest, Dowd argues. John Kerry tried to deploy stem cells as a defining issue and lost. “The President,” Dowd says, “wants to make sure there’s a balance. The public supports balance.”

That may be what many voters crave on brave-new-world issues. But with a veto, Bush will have a tough time depicting his stance as balanced and distinct from the medical-science blocking of the religious right. The party is not likely to crack up over stem cells, but this controversy–perhaps a prelude to other battles stirred by technological advances–is pushing Republicans to consider how far to go in identifying with diehard social conservatives. This fault-line within the GOP is hardly a death knell for the party. But one thing’s certain: It can’t be good for the GOP when Bush and DeLay suggest that Nancy Reagan and other prominent Republicans support an unethical practice that entails human dismemberment.