One of Kerry’s biggest applause lines — right up there with his crack about not wanting to depend on the Saudi Royal Family — was his praise of stem cell research. It was very deftly done: he never mentioned the President’s opposition to it, just briefly mentioned the hope of the medical miracles it might deliver. (Ron Reagan had done the full exposition earlier in the week.) And by not mentioning the religious context of opposition to stem cell work, Kerry deliberately passed up a chance to punch a Democratic hot button.
But he doesn’t need stem cells to rally the party faithful, and the actual use to which his formulation puts the issue was much more subtle. Stem cells are a “wedge issue” in the original sense of that term: not an issue that divides the country, but an issue that divides the opposition party.
Who’s going to vote for Bush this year? Very roughly speaking, four groups: social conservatives, hawks, corporate opponents of litigation and regulation, and fans of the tax cut. (Obviously, the last two groups overlap considerably, but they’re distinct interests.)
Many hawks, corporatistas, and tax-cut beneficiaries have aging parents, or are themselves aging. Moreoever, many of them are devout believers in the promise of science and technology.
Lots of the social-conservative agenda makes the hawks and the rich guys nervous, or even nauseates them (some are gay; many have gay friends or family members), but that stuff is mostly shadow-boxing and they know it: the gay-bashing amendment isn’t going to pass, for example, and there’s no imminent threat that prosperous women will be denied access to abortion services.
But stem cell research is different: it really matters to the social conservatives because they consider it part of the abortion fight, and Bush’s resulting policies really threaten both the material interests and the ideology of the other parts of his coalition. And given the extremely tenuous link between the anti-abortion side of the abortion issue as it grabs normal people and the use of spare embryos from fertility clinics — embryos produced for other purposes and which will never in any case be brough to term — in clinical research, no one whose vote would otherwise be up for grabs is likely to turn against Kerry because he supports stem-cell research.
Bush’s straddle on the issue was a gamble that he could keep the social conservatives in line without too badly outraging the others. If it had been true that the cell lines he approved were adequate to the research task, or that adult stem cells could be made to substitute, he might have mostly gotten away with it. But neither seems to be the case. (Which isn’t to say that RR Jr.’s gee-whiz exposition is right; the path from the laboratory to the clinic is a long, hard path.)
So, potentially, Bush is in a world of hurt. He can’t easily welsch on the social conservatives, especially with Kerry and Edwards doing such a good job of making themselves culturally unthreatening. The point of the Ron Reagan speech, followed by the reference in the Kerry speech (followed, no doubt, by lots of other activity by the campaign and by the 527 committees) is to make that potential hurt actual.
How many voters whose families make more than $100,000 per year want to see Leon Kass exercising censorship over stem cell research? A small minority, I’d bet. And for many in the majority, it could be a voting issue, or at least a staying-home-instead-of-voting-for-Bush issue. (And of course that’s true for some social conservatives as well: their political leadership may be united on the issue, but for ordinary folks blood is thicker than doctrine; ask Nancy Reagan, who has pointedly refused to speak at the Republican convention.)
The Republican attempt to transplant Alexander Hamilton’s head onto William Jennings Bryan’s body never deserved to work; populism and plutocracy are strange bedfellows. But it has been working. Stem cells are the one of the best hopes for causing the head to reject the body, causing the monstrosity to come apart.
Talking about stem cell research is not only right substantively and brillian poitically, it’s much less disgusting morally than using th other available wedge: pretending that world trade is a bad thing. So I’m altogether for it. I like its substance, I like its politics both for now and for the long run, and his deftness in using it gives me the sense that Kerry and his team know what they’re doing.