Battle For Bush's Soul

If Karl Rove has his way, the GOP--the Grand Old Party--will become the POG--the Party of God. Since the early '70s, the actively religious have been migrating to the Republicans. In the 2000 election, two of three voters who regularly attended church voted for George W. Bush, while two of three voters who never attended church voted for Al Gore. Bush won overwhelmingly among Protestant evangelicals and even carried 47 percent of the traditionally Democratic Catholic vote. Rove, the president's chief political strategist, is after the other 53 percent, millions of voters who could "realign" the political parties to make the Republicans dominant for years to come--or at least in 2004.

Pure politics helps explain why the White House has long been expected to ban federal funding for research on stem cells extracted from human embryos. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy has vigorously opposed the procedure as a violation of the sanctity of life. At Rove's urging, President Bush has been avidly and visibly courting Catholics, delivering the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, receiving Catholic leaders at the White House, and effusively praising Pope John Paul II ("he is never more eloquent than when he speaks for a culture of life..."). As recently as May 18, President Bush wrote the Culture of Life Foundation, a pro-life group, "I oppose Federal funding for stem-cell research that involves destroying living human embryos."

And yet Bush is clearly discovering that the politics and the ethics of stem-cell research are more complicated than a simple "no" from the federal government. By a 3-1 margin, the public wants to go forward with research that has the potential to provide magical cures for a host of neurological and other diseases. According to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, even 72 percent of white Catholics favor stem-cell research. Rove's mantra has long been "protect the base," the true-blue conservatives who form the heart of the GOP. But as Bush's approval ratings fall--as low as 50 percent last week--his strategist is coming under increasing criticism for alienating moderates who provide the key swing votes in presidential elections. Now it looks as if even Rove is fishing for a fix on the touchiest question yet to face President Bush.

According to an aide, Rove has been prohibited by the president from speaking to reporters until after the White House announces its decision on stem-cell research, expected in the weeks ahead. But, NEWSWEEK has learned, Bush's powerful political guru has been quietly shopping a proposal aimed at pleasing, or at least placating, all sides. Already, commercial biotech firms and universities in the United States and overseas have developed a half-dozen "cell lines," stem cells drawn from embryos that are now reproducing in lab dishes. Under Rove's compromise, the federal government would allow its funds to be used for research on the existing cell lines. And the Department of Health and Human Services would write rules to compel the owners of those cell lines to share them with other researchers. The White House would not comment on this possible fix, and Rove's motives remain unclear: he may be merely floating a trial balloon to test the reaction. One catch: some of the existing cell lines were created without parental consent, a violation of existing federal guidelines.

It will be hard, if not impossible, to find an approach that satisfies everyone. True, some stem-cell researchers say that even a half-dozen cell lines would be enough to at least keep research going. "It's workable but not ideal," said Harvard's Evan Snyder, a pioneer in stem-cell research. But Larry Soler, chairman of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, the umbrella organization for some 50 groups lobbying for stem-cell research, argued that the option floated by Rove would be "seriously inadequate." Limiting research to a few existing cell lines, Soler said, would not allow enough diversity to treat people with widely varying immunologies. And much of the Christian right opposes any research involving embryonic stem cells. "This is really a life-and-death issue," says Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association. "It's hard to compromise on that kind of thing." He compared stem-cell research to using the results of Nazi medical experiments.

Where will Bush come out? The president's views are a well-kept secret, even from many of his top advisers. Last month Bush held a private lunch at the White House with two of the main players in the controversy, Rove and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. Rove has been telling colleagues that his opposition to stem-cell research is not merely political but moral. No details have emerged from the lunch with Bush, but it is a sure bet that Thompson vigorously argued the other side. Although he is a Catholic with a strong pro-life record as governor of Wisconsin, Thompson strongly backs stem-cell research. Initially, his motivation was partly economic. Wisconsin's rust-belt industries were flagging, and biotechnology promised new jobs and tax revenues. But educated by a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Thompson began to see the medical potential of stem-cell research. Thompson's wife, Sue Ann, is a breast-cancer survivor; though cancer is not one of the diseases that could be cured by stem-cell research, his wife's experience sensitized him to the search for cures. He listened patiently to the ethical arguments of Catholic pro-life groups who visited him at the governor's office just before he left for Washington last January. But at the end, the new secretary of HHS asked rhetorically, "What do I tell people who believe these diseases can be cured by the use of embryonic stem cells?"

An innovator who used to tell his gubernatorial staff, "Look, I'm the boss," Thompson is frustrated by the infighting and paralysis of the nation's capital. "Everything has to be vetted and vetted. It's a strange process," Thompson told The Washington Post. "The bureaucracy in Washington doesn't suit my style very well." Thompson's candor rankled some in the White House. A former Thompson aide says that his old boss and the president have a strong and easy-going relationship that could help produce a solution to the stem-cell debate. "If it were up to him [Bush] and Tommy alone, they would get it worked out," said this aide, who blamed clashing White House aides for standing in the way.

Thompson isn't the only one finding the pro-stem-cell argument a tough sell inside. One academic who has been lobbying the White House to allow more research was also caught in the swirl. Vice President Dick Cheney listened sympathetically, concerned that other countries, particularly Britain, would pull ahead if the administration imposed a ban. Yet sent by Cheney to see Rove, this scientist found the president's political adviser to be uninterested and dismissive.

The moral debate over stem-cell research is anything but clear-cut, even to many on the right. The right-to-life groups have been as vigorous and visible as ever, and they have consistency and simplicity on their side: an embryo, they argue, is life and inviolable, no matter how it is conceived. The Catholic hierarchy has been using its new entree to the White House to brace equivocators or backsliders. Every week Bush's political staff, led by Rove, holds a weekly conference call with conservative Catholics.

Yet the pro-stem-cell-research forces include some prominent religious conservatives. Stem cells do not need to be taken from aborted fetuses. Fertility clinics already possess 100,000 unused frozen embryos that are slated to be discarded. Former GOP senator Connie Mack of Florida, a devout Catholic, and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Mormon and staunch pro-lifer, have both drawn a distinction between embryos created in the womb and those made in a test tube. Both men back stem-cell research.

If Bush does decide to allow work on stem cells to go forward, he will have plenty of cover among Republicans. Last week Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington state sent Bush a letter, signed by 30 House Republicans, urging him to allow stem-cell research. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, largely spearheaded by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, has been working both the grass roots and backstage. It has hired former Bob Dole staffer Vicki Hart to lobby White House insiders. Conservative icon Strom Thurmond, whose child has diabetes, is a supporter. The Washington media elite is buzzing over "Saving Millie," a powerful testimonial by journalist Mort Kondracke to his wife, who is suffering from Parkinson's, one of the diseases that might be cured by advances with stem cells.

The Senate may try to force Bush's hand. GOP leader Trent Lott has hinted his support for research, and maverick John McCain has publicly reversed his campaign stand against it. The conservative House leadership, by contrast, remains opposed and could probably block an up-down vote from reaching the floor. One backdoor possibility: a rider permitting stem-cell research attached to an HHS appropriations bill that is sure to sail through on Capitol Hill.

Bush could say the measure was forced on him. He can plead practical exigencies: he must pick a new director of the National Institutes of Health, and he will have a hard time finding one who won't want to forge ahead on such a critical new frontier of science and health care. Having hewed to the political right for his first few months, he might decide this is a good time to tack back to the center. But ultimately, the president will have to listen to his conscience. A year ago, as candidate Bush prepared for the presidential debates, a consultant tried to provoke him. He asked Bush how he could justify opposing stem-cell research when his own sister had died of leukemia. Bush was furious. Ostensibly, he was angry at the questioner for dragging his family's painful personal memories into the political arena. But the battle over stem-cell research is so difficult and so deeply felt precisely because it is personal: it is, as both sides so adamantly argue, about who lives and who dies.