The Washington Times

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.”

Now, the press doesn’t make up this language, or take it verbatim from the White House. The “OKs Limited,” in this case, has its roots not in a political operative’s fondest desire, but in the actual policy Mr. Bush announced. So the headline descriptions Friday were accurate. And for the reasons I have given here, I’d be surprised if public approval of his decision doesn’t run well into the 60 percent range. In other words, if Mr. Bush had approached this matter entirely politically || solely with the goal of crafting a popular solution || and had perfect skill in discerning what to do to that end as well as solid execution, I’m not sure he would have or should have done anything differently.

Now, I think there are likely to be some fairly dramatic long-term political consequences flowing from this decision, and it will be fascinating to watch them unfold. In the first week, we have already seen a sharp divide in the pro-life community. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the Bush decision, while a number of activist groups, including National Right to Life, supported it. Of the two positions, the former is not new, but the latter certainly is, and the tension between the two is remarkable.

The pro-life groups long associated with GOP politics no longer speak with one voice on “their” issue. I think an equivalent rift in the Democratic Party might be a split between the National Organization of Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League over partial-birth abortion || a very big deal.

If Mr. Bush can issue as high-profile a decision as this one coming out where he did without arousing the opposition pro-life movement in its entirety, or even in its majority, then in making this decision Mr. Bush may well have broken the back of the pro-life lobby as a political force in the GOP. For better or worse, a party that is in general opposed to abortion and accordingly insists on opposing stem cell research is a very different one from a party generally anti-abortion but also in favor of funding stem cell research.

Everybody thought this decision was a mess for Mr. Bush, however it came out. What if, politically || and I am speaking only politically || it was really an opportunity?