WASHINGTON -- When anguished conservatives talked to Karl Rove in the hours before George W. Bush's decision on stem cell research was revealed Thursday night, the president's political adviser told them to wait and listen to Bush's thoughtful approach. They waited, but still were unhappy about what they heard.
President Bush could claim to his conservative base that, technically, he did not break his campaign pledge to oppose the destruction of embryos in the interest of medical research. The pro-life rhetoric of his 11-minute speech surpassed anything Ronald Reagan or his father ever said. While that prevented upheaval by Republican conservatives, the bonds of trust have been weakened. Bush raised doubts that he might be a pro-life president for reasons of political convenience.
The president put himself on two slippery slopes. First, his highly limited green light for approval of research showed the political world that he can be moved by strategically applied pressure. Second, his minimal approval gave scientists an opening to demand much more -- which they immediately began probing.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush opposed federal funding "that involves destruction of live human embryos." Bob Best, a devout Catholic who heads the Culture of Life Foundation, on May 9 wrote the president asking him to reiterate opposition to a practice that is "wrong" from a "moral standpoint." To Best's surprise, Bush responded rapidly on May 19: "I oppose federal funding for stem-cell research that involves destroying living human embryos." Although the adjective "living" provided a small escape hatch, federal funding now seemed a closed proposition.
It was not. A change was advocated by key staffers, including Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Counselor Karen Hughes and domestic policy chief Josh Bolten (with Rove alone in opposition). Bio-ethicists were brought into the Oval Office to secretly brief the president. Informally, he was confronted with a flood of anecdotes, with friends and colleagues telling of ailing relatives who could be cured if only the president relented.
Bush is undoubtedly sincere in contending his decision was not political, but political pressure was applied. The capital's Republican establishment pressed hard with the theme that the president could not risk alienating the great middle range of voters since the right could not go elsewhere. Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a leader in anti-research ranks, managed to get only a fleeting moment with the president but no serious discussion.
The pressure grew with demands for federal funding from supposedly pro-life Republican politicians, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch. According to sources from Hatch's home state of Utah, he was influenced by one of his financial supporters: Salt Lake City billionaire and medical philanthropist Jon Huntsman. Bush declared himself undecided once Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate's only physician, came out for research.
The GOP's great cultural divide was unpleasantly exposed by Kenneth Duberstein, President Ronald Reagan's last chief of staff and informal political adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He publicly declared that Bush had to choose between being a compassionate conservative and satisfying Rush Limbaugh.
Members of Bush's inner circle congratulated themselves extravagantly Friday on their mechanics. The timing ended the buzz about too much vacation time for the president. Giving the speech at 9 p.m. Eastern prevented a full day of critical analysis. The president appeared serious and even intellectual. Best of all, he was not open to questions from reporters.
Such image-making did not deflect criticism. Deal Hudson, Crisis Magazine editor who helped the 2000 Bush campaign in seeking the Catholic vote, told me Bush's decision "was not as bad as we had feared" but was still "a disappointment." Catholic critics felt that Bush had put "science" and "morality" in separate boxes rather than treating it as a unified whole. Predictably, scientists complained that the limits imposed by Bush will prove stifling to medical research.
Bush aides who rejoiced over favorable overnight polls Friday now must confront those slippery slopes. The concerted campaign on the president from within and without may become a model for influencing him to abandon troubled nominees and neuter beleaguered proposals. The pressure on him to widen the door for embryonic research began at about 9:11 p.m. Eastern last Thursday night.