Sen. Bill Frist is getting bouquets and brickbats for his voicing of support for federal funding of stem-cell research. As the New York Times notes in their editorial today,
Mr. Frist – the transplant-surgeon-turned-lawmaker who was last seen catering to religious conservatives by questioning whether Terri Schiavo was really in a persistent vegetative state – showed courage and common sense yesterday by endorsing a bill to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research. Such research has the potential to provide cures for a range of diseases someday, but it is anathema to the religious right because the stem cells are extracted from microscopic embryos that are destroyed in the process.
Mr. Frist is thus in some danger of alienating a powerful segment of the Republican political base. His stance will also put him at odds with President Bush, who is threatening to veto the measure, but it may enhance his appeal to moderates if he decides to run for president.
Those who support stem-cell research welcomed the support of the Senate Majority Leader to their cause, and many Democrats cast a wary glance at the shift, noting that there may be more cynical motives at work here; even if the bill passes, the president will veto it and there are not enough votes to override it. Therefore Dr. Frist has made a calculated move to what some consider to tbe the center of his party, broadening his appeal to the more moderate — and broader — base of independent voters needed to win in the primaries, and stem-cell research is still limited to what President Bush asked for in 2001. It’s a win-win for Dr. Frist, even if he does piss off the Religious Reich, who thought they had him nailed when he diagnosed Terri Schiavo via videotape and pronounced her to be just a little groggy.
Is there the possibility that Dr. Frist acually has had a change of heart that would put him at odds with both President Bush and the pro-life crowd? Sure. The science of stem-cell research offers a great deal of hope while the voices against it are citing theology — much the same trouble Galileo ran up against in his day. And while Dr. Frist may have political ambitions, we should be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his scientific background as a surgeon also had a role in it, and he was willing to risk the wrath of the White House to see the research go forward with federal support. Some things outweigh politics, and he may be convinced that this is one of them. (If I were him, though, I’d make sure my wife didn’t have a job as a covert agent for an intelligence organization.)
Sen. Hillary Clinton has also been facing the flowers and tomatoes for taking a stand that puts her at odds with her party’s hard-core wing. Her speech at the DLC meeting last week in Columbus was not that much different that what Dr. Frist did: it irritated the right (and the left) people and got her into the news cycle.
Clinton didn’t single out liberals, and her intent might have been more ecumenical in urging all wings of the party to turn their guns on the “hard-right ideology in Washington” instead of each other. But her presence at the DLC convention in Columbus, Ohio, spoke volumes. It said to the left that this is where she is planting her flag for the presidential race. And what she’s doing now is taking care of whatever perceived weaknesses she has, as well as those of the Democratic Party. She shouldn’t trim her principles, but she has the leeway to defy the liberal stereotypes. As a progressive in a country where half or more of voters are reflexively conservative, she has to find ideas that surprise people and grab their attention if she’s going to break through as a national candidate.
Beyond that, though, it also points out that Hillary Rodham Clinton may not be the caricature that the right wing has painted her as for the last fifteen years, and they have done such a good job of it that the liberals believe it. Her senate career has not followed the path of Teddy Kennedy and she has been more centrist on some issues such as defense than either the liberals or conservatives are willing to admit. Of course we can cynically say that she has done all of this for purely political reasons as opposed to really wanting to do good things for her state and her country. Her “principled stand” could be nothing more than a political ploy to broaden her appeal to the more moderate — and broader — base of independent voters needed to win in the primaries. Just like Dr. Frist.
Senator Clinton has the luxury of tweaking the noses of the liberals in her party; they do not have the foundation of talk-radio, direct mail, and evangelical Jesus-shouters the right wing does, nor have they been able to get their people in power in places where it can matter, such as the DNC. (No, Howard Dean is not a leftie, much as both Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore would like him to be.) So her planting of the flag, as Ms. Clift calls it, is a win-win for her, just as stem-cells are for Dr. Frist. A short term loss of ground will be made up later, and it does no harm to her presidential ambitions. And — as naive as it may seem — it could be that she, like Dr. Frist, actually believes in what she is doing.