George W. Bush has used his veto pen exactly three times. Once, of course, was to veto the supplemental approrpriations bill that would have imposed a withdrawal timetable for troops in Iraq. And the other two vetoes, one just yesterday, were aimed at legislation relaxing his administration’s restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
On both topics, Bush is swimming against a heavy tide of public opinion. Virtually any way the question is asked, Americans now oppose Bush’s Iraq strategy by a two-to-one margin. Support for stem cell research has risen from 58 percent to 68 percent during the Bush presidency, with half of Republicans supporting it. Fully 60 percent of Americans support federal funding of such research. State stem cell funding initiatives–most famously, California’s–are spreading.
Moreover, on both Iraq and stem cell research, Bush has struggled to articulate a coherent rationale for his position. In the case of Iraq, his “stay the course” rhetoric is jarringly out of synch with media coverage of events on the ground, not to mention Iraqi public opinion and the behavior of Iraqi leaders, as amplified by the vast number of leaks from U.S. military leaders despairing of success. On stem cell research, Bush’s claims that existing stem cell “‘colonies” provide sufficient material for research has been roundly refuted by scientists. On an even more fundamental level, his argument that research “destroys human life” flies in the face of the simple fact that the embyros in question are scheduled for destruction anyway. (I’d love to know if anyone in the administration has considered trying to follow Italy’s lead in restricting embryo generation at IV fertility clinics, which would at least be logical, if politically explosive).
And now, with an override of Bush’s stem cell veto almost certain to fail (in the House, if not in the Senate as well), Congressional Democrats are reportedly toying with the idea of attaching an appropriations rider authorizing research funding, which would make both of the big issues where Bush is defying public opinion subject to the ever-murky appropriations process. And in that legislative swamp, the theorectical power of Congress to impose its will on a president by denying money for objectionable policies contends with the practical ability of the president to force a showdown on his own terms (viz. the 1995 budget standoff between Clinton and Gingrich).
I won’t wade into the fractious debate about the Iraq supplemental, which many Democrats, particularly in the netroots, regard as an example of craven surrender to Bush on an issue where public opinion might support a tougher stance. (That debate, however, is likely to be reignited, at least in the blogosphere, by Sen. Carl Levin’s Washington Post op-ed today defending his vote for the supplemental, citing Abraham Lincoln, no less).
But more broadly, both the Iraq and stem cell issues illustrate that even a weak, lame-duck president has siginificant ability to block change, if not to initiate change, in public policies, even if they are very unpopular, particularly if the opposition party is divided on how to overcome his bull-headedness. The damage inflicted on this country by the Bush presidency is likely to continue right up to the next Inauguration Day.
On the stem cell research issue, the impasse in Congress does potentially make this a significant 2008 campaign issue, and a winning one for Democrats. If anyone other than Rudy Giuliani or John McCain is the GOP presidential nominee (both have opposed Bush’s funding ban), it will be an issue in that campaign.
It’s a winner for Democrats not simply because public opinion supports their position, but because of the nature of the debate. On the core issue of abortion, there’s a dialogue of the deaf between people championing incongruent values: “human life” versus “reproductive freedom” or “choice.” Neither side can acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side’s basic assumptions. That’s why abortion prevention is the only policy that can breach the gap, as Sen. Hillary Clinton has understood in making that a significant part of her Senate and campaign message.
But on stem cell research, the contending values are human life, and, well, human life–its preservation and extension. That’s why the subject divides even anti-abortion activists (though not their leaders), and why a majority of white evangelical Protestants and the vast majority of Catholics support stem cell research.
Even people who to one degree or another view the destruction of human embryos as an act of homicide understand that sometimes lives are unavoidably sacrificed to save far more lives. Indeed, that’s the rationale for sacrificing young men and women in wars, as Bush continues to insist we do in Iraq. That’s a point that Democrats should not be shy to make during the current debate, and in 2008.