The Washington Post

There is a famous convention among political commentators and practitioners never to admit being surprised by a turn of events – as if politics were so predictable that being taken by surprise is a sign of weakness.

Well, I will admit I was surprised by President Bush’s decision in favor of limited government funding for stem cell research. And I will tell you why: because it really is a new development, a break with the past. And the political implications are potentially momentous.

As I argued here last week, a Republican Party that is generally pro-life but prepared to fund stem cell research is a fundamentally different political party from one that is pro-life and accordingly unwilling to fund stem cell research. The latter is a party whose hard-line anti-abortion position is predominant, trumping all other considerations in any cases deemed relevant by the hard-liners.

It’s important to understand this clearly. To say that a party is driven by an interest group on a particular subject is to say that the interest group has a veto on any party action on any subject the interest group’s interests touch, as determined by the interest group.

For example, there are many pro-choice Republicans and many pro-life Democrats. And there is opportunity in each party for those holding these views to occupy positions of some prominence. But a Democratic administration would never appoint a pro-life surgeon general, and a GOP administration would never appoint a pro-choice surgeon general. That territory is under the suzerainty of their respective interest groups.

Now, exactly how much reach even a dominant interest group has is a dicey matter. By our definition here, wherever it reaches, it will dominate, but that does not mean that its reach is unlimited. No pro-life activist ever (except, perhaps, in his dreams) imagines casting pro-choice Republicans out of the party, or insisting that a pro-life view is a necessary qualification for, say, secretary of transportation, let alone deputy assistant secretary of transportation. But the limitation is imposed by the group itself. It seeks to extend its influence as far as its influence is decisive, and if prudent, no farther. On one side, it would be foolish to have sway and not to claim it; this would cede power. On the other side, overreaching is an indication of a mistaken sense of one’s power, and one pays a price for it in the embarrassment of having the overestimate exposed.

Such was the predominance of the pro-life forces within the GOP that they held sway over an impressive array of policy and personnel decisions. Though consisting of diverse components – the main ones being the nominally secular National Right to Life, evangelical Protestants, and Catholic organizations – they spoke with one voice on their issue, and while they lost political battles in the world at large, they did not lose political battles that would cause the GOP to be seen as anything but a staunchly pro-life party.

I don’t, in truth, see how you separate the question of federal funding of stem cell research from the question of the predominance of the pro-life wing of the GOP. To be sure, people have tried – not least National Right to Life itself, as well as a number of evangelical Christian ministers long associated with conservative GOP politics. They supported Mr. Bush’s decision yet clearly consider themselves no less pro-life than they have always been. This may be true, but I think the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the most prominent organization to stand against Mr. Bush, proffered a more traditional argument in that it reached exactly the conclusion the entirety of the pro-life movement would have reached a decade ago or even a year ago confronted with a comparable question. Put it this way: If Mr. Bush had come out against stem cell research funding, does anyone imagine National Right to Life and half of the “religious right” would have denounced him for it?

The real point is this: There is no pro-life position on stem cell research funding, at least not one possessing political salience. And if there is no pro-life position on stem cell research funding, of all things, where else now may there be no politically salient pro-life position?

We are probably going to find out. For example, I think that thanks to Mr. Bush’s decision, and to the pro-life split it either provoked or exposed (I don’t claim to have that figured out yet), a pro-choice vice presidential nominee is conceivable in the GOP in a way that such a thing simply was not a month ago, nor for a quarter-century. Suppose such a contender, while affirming his belief that the choice is no one else’s to make, pledged to do whatever he could to make abortion rare. Whom might he now satisfy with this, on “realist” grounds? This just might have relevance in 2004, in the event that Mr. Bush looks to his pro-choice secretary of state, Colin Powell, to replace Dick Cheney.

The pro-life predominance in the GOP is over. Can it be reconstituted? I think it more likely that the vestiges of the period of its predominance will be quickly swept away.