Saturday, July 29, 2006

Political Pledges
Jonathan Alter
Political Pledges

As if we needed any more proof, President Bush’s recent veto of an embryonic-stem-cell research bill shows that the issue has now been fully politicized. So the question is, which party will exploit it better? Because three quarters of the public now supports this promising research, Republicans want to play the whole thing down.
Democrats want to play it up. One way for Democrats (or “pro-cure” Republicans) to dramatize the issue is with what I call the no-stem pledge.

You may recall the no-tax pledge. It has transformed American politics. Back in 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush was on the ropes in the presidential primaries after losing badly to Bob Dole in the Iowa caucuses. So in New Hampshire, Bush wheeled on Dole in a debate and asked him to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Dole refused. That helped Bush turn the race around and win the presidency (where he famously reneged on his pledge, helping him to lose it in 1992). In the years since, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform has handed out thousands of pledge sheets to politicians. At last count, 1,200 of 7,400 state legislators have promised never to vote for tax increases, and Washington remains in the grip of tax-cut fever. Whatever one thinks of tax cuts or the pledge gimmick, Norquist has been enormously effective.

I can envision a no-stem pledge being proffered in a similar way. In July, 37 senators and 193 members of the House backed Bush and voted against allowing even surplus embryos headed for the trash bin to be used in federally funded research. If they have any moxie, their opponents this year will show up at debates (or press conferences in contests with no debates) and challenge the incumbents who voted with Bush to promise that they will never use any treatments derived from embryonic-stem-cell research. In other words, to put their own health where their votes are.

The actual written pledge (patterned on Norquist’s) could include language something like this: “Because of my strong opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research, I hereby pledge that should I, at any point in the future, develop diabetes, cancer, spinal-cord injuries or Parkinson’s, among other diseases, I will refuse any and all treatments derived from such research, at home or abroad, even if it costs me my life. Signed, ______”

You will notice that I did not include relatives in the pledge. They should not be made to pay for the short-sightedness of the politician in the family. And the politician’s health won’t suffer either. If life-saving cures are found from embryonic stem cells—and they’re still several years down the road—you can bet that only fanatics and the suicidal will deny themselves the chance to live, whatever they pledged in 2006.

I’d imagine that most incumbents (and challengers with similar views) will dismissively refuse to sign. But the offer of the pledge and the refusal to sign it will highlight the issue in a way that clearly conveys how damaging and hypocritical their “anti-cure” position is. It will place them on the defensive, where they don’t often find themselves on moral issues.

When pinned down, how will they respond? You can imagine the politician starting with his support for adult stem-cell research, an answer that has already grown shopworn. The “pro-cure” candidate can simply explain to the audience that as promising as adult stem cells are for treating a few diseases, scientists all agree that they don’t offer the potential for nearly as many cures as embryonic stem cells. The challenger can go on to explain how the veto threatens to take the United States off the cutting edge of medical research, where we’ve dominated for many years. That turns the whole thing into a competitiveness issue, too.

The next argument from those who support Bush on this issue might be that just because one might some day use the fruits of the research doesn’t make it right, just as liberals opposed to, say, tax breaks are almost always willing to make use of such breaks themselves if they’re legal. But in this case, opposing federal research will almost certainly slow any cures—so the consequences of the hypocrisy are more grave than on other legislation. John Tierney argued in a recent New York Times column that if stem-cell research is so promising, the private sector will step up, as it did for in vitro fertilization (IVF). But fertility clinics had a ready and highly profitable market in childless couples to fuel the growth of their industry (which, by the way, was passionately opposed in the 1980s on moral grounds by the Roman Catholic Church and many of the same people who voted against the stem-cell bill last week). Embryonic-stem-cell research is basic medical research, which has always been driven by federal dollars. Without that money, cures will be slowed and people will die.

Like the no-tax pledge, the no-stem pledge would certainly be denounced as a gimmick unworthy of such a serious issue. This opens the door to a terrific debate over just that—how serious public servants with a serious responsibility to protect the lives of their constituents don’t do so with one hand tied behind their backs.