WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush's surprised, uncomfortable demeanor Monday at Castel Gandolfo showed that his ill-conceived course on stem cell research was crashing. Contrary to what the president expected, Pope John Paul II publicly lectured him on the morality of destroying embryos in the quest for miraculous cures.
This made clear President Bush's biggest tactical mistake so far. By further delaying his decision on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research until returning in August to his Crawford, Texas, ranch when Congress will be out of session, he trapped himself. He has been seen by the world side by side with the pope, hearing destruction of embryos linked with "infanticide" and deemed unworthy of an America aspiring to be a "free and virtuous society." Bush now must either defy the Holy Father or succumb to him.
A decision to reverse his campaign position could stifle support from church-going Catholics that is essential to today's Republicans. Beyond Catholics, loyalty to Bush by social conservatives would be threatened, as the new president would apparently descend the slippery slope of serial capitulation traversed by his father.
How did this happen? While Bush's anti-abortion position seems sincere enough, key White House aides disagree. Believing that defection by pro-choice GOP women lost at least Pennsylvania last year and threatened future disaster, they urged Bush not to make a quick confirmation of his stem cell campaign pledge.
No White House staffer is supposed to talk about this issue. But political adviser Karl Rove opposes funding while other senior aides -- including Chief of Staff Andrew Card, counselor Karen Hughes and domestic policy chief Josh Bolten -- support it.
The result was one of those tactical ploys that seem ingenious behind closed doors but flop in the real world. Trial balloon compromises limiting scientific exploration beyond stem cells were launched by pro-research conservative Republicans Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Bill Frist of Tennessee.
But not every issue can be compromised, and scientific experimentation with embryos is one of them. Frist's proposal (unveiled as Bush arrived in London last week) backfired. Nobody liked it. That broadened public attention on stem cell research that has been expanded exponentially over the last week by the news media as second only to the Chandra-Condit obsession.
All Bush could do was hope that the pope would not reiterate Catholic opposition. His hope was nourished by conversations with Vatican officials giving the impression that John Paul II would not bring up the issue. Bush is "very familiar, as are most people, with the position of the church," said Karen Hughes, implying that neither president nor pope would mention stem cells.
She could not have been more wrong. The pope reiterated his position, not in the president's private audience but in their public meeting televised worldwide. This extraordinary intervention in a national political debate informed active Catholics of the Holy Father's deep concern.
But Bush's compromisers die hard. Unable to understand the pope's plain language, White House aides told reporters traveling with the president that there was still room for compromise. Catholic spokesmen, at the Vatican and back in the U.S., properly labeled as patently absurd such an interpretation of the pope's language in describing "a tragic coarsening of consciences."
Meanwhile, the president and his aides continue to mourn the difficulty of the decision for the president. In a strictly political sense, the choice is painful. If Bush drops his opposition, damage with active Catholics and other social conservatives will be severe. If he continues to oppose federal funding, Hatch and like-minded conservatives have warned of a broad-based public revulsion.
Bush has declared fervently that "this is way beyond politics." The impression given by some at the White House is that the question here is strictly scientific and leads to a decision in favor of research. Science indeed can accomplish almost anything, but the president has indicated privately that he understands such accomplishments cannot override morality. If the president is considering only the ethical test (as some close advisers insist he is), he could and should have decided the issue long ago -- without the need to be surprised by a lecture from the pope.