Update: Proving my point that double-talk only creates problems, Steele now calls himself a supporter of embryonic stem-cell research. To win this November, Steele needed to rack up a sizable margin among Catholic voters. This statement only gives fodder to those who say that all politicians are the same. While strongly disagreeing with supporters of embryonic stem-cell research, Catholics typically do not consider them disingenuous. Now, Steele has demonstrated to both supporters and opponents of the research that he clearly does not care about or understand the issue. Instead, he’ll shoot from the hip and say whatever he thinks a particular audience wants to hear. Steele needed everything to fall into place to have a chance to take this seat. He may have just cost himself the election less because of his position and more because of his disingenuity.
In the past week, two Republican candidates have spoken out about the controversial issue of human cloning. As with the abortion debate, those on either side of the debate tend to shout past each other rather than addressing the issues that the other side raises while politicians try to split the baby. It took nearly three decades after Roe for the two sides to begin to establish common ground, such as legislation like the ban on partial-birth abortion. One has to expect that it will take as long to agree on at least some limits on such research.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele went first. Speaking at a board meeting of the Baltimore Jewish Council, Steele responded to a question about stem-cell research by saying in part, “You of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool.” In the wake of criticism, Steele clarified, saying, “When I was asked the question about stem cell research, I had just finished speaking at length about my first trip to Israel and the powerful memories I had of my visit to the Holocaust museum there… Those memories have had a lasting impression on me, but in no way did I intend to equate the two or trivialize the pain and suffering of more than six million Jews.”
Steele’s initial comments demonstrate an honesty that is all too rare in politics. The fact that he initially drew the comparision shows that he does understand the severity of the issue and the need to avoid crossing the ethical line between scientific promise and respect for life. His clarification was something of a disappointment since he backed away from the initial parallel. Steele was right to clarify that he did not mean to minimize the Holocaust, a black mark on human history. Even so, he should not have backtracked on the comparison. Life must never be used as an object, no matter how noble the goal. Immoral behavior cannot be justified by hiding under the guise of science. The sincerity of most of those on the other side of the debate should not be questioned, and medical research must continue to seek cures for diseases. At the same time, we must be careful to respect the boundaries of ethical behavior and avoid the counter-productive behavior of losing sight of respect for life, the very reason that those cures must be found.
Politically, Steele’s clarification could hurt more than his initial statement, though it will probably matter little when all is said and done. Even before the comments, any Democrat nominee would be expected to dominate the Jewish vote, as well as single issue stem-cell research supporters. His decision to ultimately separate the experimentation on Jews and experimentation on embryos could disappoint some of his supporters, but his policy positions remain in line with those of his natural supporters. It is difficult to imagine any votes changing based on the initial statement or the clarification.
Sen. Jim Talent, who is facing a serious challenge from Claire McCaskill, also spoke about research on Friday. He announced that he was withdrawing his co-sponsorship of the Brownback-Landrieu cloning ban, saying that such a ban would be unnecessary because of the promise of altered nuclear transfer. Talent also declined to comment on a Missouri initiative to protect embryonic stem-cell research in his home state.
His decision to withdraw his support of the Brownback-Landrieu bill is baffling because its necessity is readily apparent by a look at the stem-cell issue itself. Scientists continue to engage in attempts to clone human beings and embryonic stem-cell research even though research on adult stem-cells has shown more promise, including actual results. Cloning clearly crosses the ethical boundry between using science to protect life and using science as an excuse to treat life as a toy.
Politically, Talent’s decision breaks both ways. On the one hand, it neutralizes Claire McCaskill on the only issue that favored her. While polling very competitively, it would have been difficult for McCaskill to flip the seat based solely on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research. Talent and his supporters would have hammered her on issue after issue where she sides with national Democrats rather than Show Me Staters, probably demoting the race from top-tier to the status of the 2004 Missouri Senate race before the fall. Now, Talent has some explaining to do. In a mid-term election that will turn largely on base turnout, Talent has managed to alienate his most fervent supporters a la Mike DeWine. If this depresses Republican turnout like DeWine’s transgressions depressed turnout in the the Ohio 2 special election, Talent could find himself hoist by his own petard.
The nature of the GOP’s continuing problem to deal with these issues is that its candidates do their best to split the baby. Whether they claim to be “personally opposed”, “understand the reality”, assert the need to “change hearts and minds”, or some similar statement, they try to avoid saying anything that might upset people. This creates more problems than it solves. Most people do not vote and will not vote on abortion, cloning, or stem-cell research. They will respect people who understand the positions that they advocate and are frank about them. Republicans need to understand the issue itself rather than the politics of it, take a position, and explain that position clearly. Once they have stated their positions, candidates can, if they choose, move on to other issues, such as education, national security, and taxes. Frist-flopping only shows disingenuity, turns everyone off, and, most importantly, fails to solve the problem. The sooner Republicans understand this, the better off they’ll be.