Saturday, December 23, 2006

A new study about ‘embryo-safe’ stem-cell research may be a gift for Republicans, but it doesn’t change their hypocrisy on the issue
Alter: GOP Gets Escape Hatch on Stem Cells
A new study about ‘embryo-safe’ stem-cell research may be a gift for Republicans, but it doesn’t change their hypocrisy on the issue.
By Jonathan Alter

Aug. 26, 2006 - Last year I had a little encounter with Karl Rove in a hallway outside a conference. I asked him why he wanted the president to veto a bill allowing surplus embryos from fertility clinics to be used for stem-cell research instead of thrown away. “Because it’s the right thing to do,” Rove said emphatically.

When I suggested this policy might be a political loser for Republicans, the conversation got a little hot. Probably so, Rove said, his voice rising, but this wasn’t about politics. I told him the issue was personal for me; I’d had lymphoma, and embryonic stem cells offer the potential for a cure some day that adult stem cells do not. Rove said he had a close family member with a bad disease. He wasn’t about to be trumped in that department. The message was clear: Not gonna happen on my guy’s watch.

That exchange came to mind this week with news that stem-cell lines can be established from part of an early human embryo—a blastomere—without destroying the embryo itself. This doesn’t change my view of embryonic stem-cell research. To save lives, science needs to push through on many fronts simultaneously. Dr. Irving Weissman of Stanford, a leading stem-cell researcher, says that limiting research to these tiny eight-cell embryos would seriously handicap progress on many diseases. But politically, the breakthrough opens an escape hatch for Republicans. They can now muddy the issue by saying they favor only research that keeps embryos intact.

In their imaginative new book, “The Plan,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, says that the historical equilibrium in Washington between “Wonks” and “Hacks” has broken down, with wonks (those devoted to policy) practically extinct and party hacks ascendant: “The Bush years have been beset by “an outbreak of what might be called Rove flu—a virus that destroys any part of the brain not devoted to partisan political manipulation.”

This is a sound anthropological analysis, but incomplete. Buried beneath every Hack and Wonk is a Mom or Dad. (For the childless, an Aunt or Uncle). Even the proudest hack—the cynic who is obsessed with playing all the political angles—wants his children to think that he stands for something. In the movie “Thank You for Smoking,” the star is a lobbyist for the tobacco industry who hopes his kid remembers him for holding his ground even when he was making the case for cancer.

That’s Rove, or at least the one I saw at the conference. Despite his political prescience, he wasn’t smart enough to see this latest research coming. Even when he genuinely thought stem-cell politics were moving against Republicans, he dug in. It was a legacy play—a way of convincing historians (at least conservative ones) that Bush was a man of principle, standing up to political pressures on a moral issue. This seems a more plausible explanation than that he was simply pandering to the base again.

Bush and Rove are still “Hacks”—and hypocrites to boot. Otherwise, they’d call for shutting down the fertility clinics that destroy far more embryos than stem-cell researchers ever would. But they’re true believers, too. And by following their convictions—however injurious that might be to my health and that of millions of others—they might just end up with the best of both worlds: credit from religious conservatives and a fig leaf to protect them from Democrats. How ironic it would be for Bush and Rove to be rescued by the very scientific progress their original position did so much to restrict.