The Veto Power Of Public Opinion

This column was written by Terence Samuel.

So after five and a half of the most politically contentious, socially divisive, utterly confounding years we have lived through as a country since the Civil War, something has finally offended George Bush enough for him to issue a veto.

And what does he choose for this defining moment of his presidency? Opposition to federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research? From the people who brought you the largest federal deficits in history, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug program, the WMD "slam dunk" and the ensuing war in Iraq, now comes the first veto of the Bush presidency — and it's against scientific research. After 2005 days as president — the longest non-veto streak of any president in history, except Thomas Jefferson, who had none — Bush vetoed his first bill on Wednesday.

There are a lot of reasons it's taken this long for Bush to issue a veto, including a decision by the GOP-led Congress not to stray beyond the very specific desires of the White House on most issues, and a quiet determination by the administration to re-order the political landscape by stealth rather than by tough, open-air legislative battles. But there is also a clear sense that the administration's aims were neither traditional nor bold in the ordinary sense, and therefore did not present the same profile for legislative support or opposition. What do you do with a doctrine of pre-emption in committee? And what do you do with pathological secrecy and confidence metastasized into arrogance?

Interestingly, the bill the president chose to veto managed to somehow escape the traditional partisan frame that is now standard-issue in Washington. When you have the two conservative GOP senators from Utah, and the two from Mississippi voting the same way — for the bill — with the two liberal Democrats from New York and the two from Massachusetts, you have to think that the middle ground has grown pretty expansive on this issue. And when 70 percent of the American people support the research, a veto can either be an act of courage or one of recklessness.

In this case, when the research does not strain the federal coffers or endanger the national security, when it does not harm relations with the world or our place in it, the veto begins to look like garden variety political expediency. The president's main reason, in the words of Tony Snow, whose brimming eloquence is becoming something of a wonder in the capital, is to avoid a slippery-slope problem.

Asked by a friendly reporter in the press corps about the destruction of "thousands and thousands" of embryos, Snow said: "That is a tragedy, but the president is not going to get on the slippery slope of taking something that is living and making it dead for the purpose of research."

Thousands and thousands of embryos being destroyed constitutes a tragedy, but 2,500 dead Americans in Iraq "is a number," according to Snow.

Asked in mid-June about the U.S. casualty toll in Iraq reaching 2,500, Snow said: "It's a number, and every time there's one of these 500 benchmarks people want something."

Imagine that! Every time we lose 500 more Americans in Iraq, people want something. Talk about your slippery slope. You'd think research on frozen human embryos may be a lot less troubling than, say, American casualties in Iraq.

But the president, in trouble with some in his own party, has decided to use what Woodrow Wilson called the executive's "most formidable prerogative" to toss a political bone to his disappointed, conservative base. While the White House has assured us that this is a clear bright line that the president just will not cross, there is reason for skepticism: "The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research, it's inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder." Snow said.

Which, of course, did not prevent him from agreeing to a limited round of "murder" in the summer of 2001 — before 9/11, when his poll numbers were beginning to sink and there was still no "war on terror" to prop them up.

Snow openly admitted Wednesday that Bush had already crossed the line he was so defiantly refusing to cross now: "… The president is the first ever to have financed research using embryonic stem-cell lines," Snow said

Ah, the sweet smell of hypocrisy in July. Snow was on a rampage just after Bush vetoed the bill. The president was not holding back scientific progress, he insisted, flailingly: "You're just flat wrong," he told a reporter, "Just flat wrong. I mean, that is basically an attempt to substitute an insult for an argument. I've given you the argument, and I've rebutted the insult."


The Congress does not have the votes to override the veto, but the country may in November overrule the argument.

Terence Samuel is a political writer in Washington, D.C.

By Terence Samuel
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved