The Politics of Stem Cell Research

Article excerpt

Byline: Tod Lindberg

Let us grant, for purposes of argument, that President Bush did indeed wrestle long and hard with the issue of federal funding for stem cell research, that his quest for the best answer to a difficult problem was in earnest, that he approached the issue only on the merits, and that his conclusion was both serious and heartfelt. OK. Now, let's talk politics.

I think Mr. Bush got exactly the headline he wanted last Friday, some variation of which appeared in most newspapers in the country following the speech he delivered rather effectively from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the night before: "Bush OKs Limited Stem Cell Funding."

The two key words to this, and really they were ubiquitous, are "OKs" and "Limited." Together, the words have almost totemic significance in the latter-day search for the political center. To "OK" is of course the opposite of to "NIX," and this is good, because those who demand that one "NIX" are generally (in this centrist-inclined view) single-issue ideologues out to impose their narrow vision on everybody else. Thus, "Bush Nixes Stem Cell Funding" would have been a distinctly uncentrist headline, reflecting mere pandering to an interest group, hard core pro-life voters.

But to "OK" is fraught too, at least potentially, for simply to "OK" is to embrace without reservation. The opposition Democrats, too, have a dog in this fight, namely, the position that (in general) the more stem cell research, the better. Thus, "Bush OKs Stem Cell Funding" paves the way for a very unappealing subhead: "Anti-abortion Groups Vow Fight." All of a sudden, the story isn't about reaching to the middle, it's about the need to defend one's flank.

And that, of course, is where "Limited" comes in. "Limited" is good, because it implicitly invokes not one but two other possibilities, each of which looks worse by contrast. They are "Unlimited" and "Banned." "Banned" is simply the adjectival form of "Nix" (that which is "Nixed"). "Unlimited" is its equal and opposite number, posing exactly the same problems. Those who support "Unlimited" something-or-other are once again single-issue fanatics who are unwilling to be reasonable, and therefore likewise to accede to their wishes is simply to pander.

The genius of "Limited" is that it presents a world in which the two principal demands are "Banned" and "Unlimited," and triangulates a third way between them: "Limited." Thus "OKs Limited" is the wholly positive equivalent of "Nixes Unlimited" and "Nixes Ban. …