Back when Republicans didn’t control Washington, Jude Wanniski proposed the Two Santa Claus theory as a solution to their image problem. You can’t win elections by simply vowing to shrink government, he argued, because that just makes you look like the Grinch. To compete with Democrats promising benefits to everyone, you have to offer your own goodies in the form of tax cuts.
The Santa Claus strategy worked, and the Republicans’ reputation for generosity has only grown thanks to President Bush’s tax cuts and middle-class entitlements. But now the party has another image problem. Republicans are looking like moral Grinches — or, more precisely, the Church Lady, the scold who makes even fellow congregants roll their eyes.
They’re the party whose leader defends the sanctity of embyronic stem cells against scientists trying to cure diseases. They’re the killjoy who stands up to object when a gay couple wants to marry. They’re so shocked by gambling — imagine, Americans betting money! — that the House has just passed a bill outlawing most online wagering, and federal agents have arrested a visiting British executive of a sports-betting operation that is perfectly legal in his country.
Even before there were lottery tickets at gas stations and casinos on reservations, savvy politicians realized that gambling was a vice to be denounced but mostly ignored. They generally didn’t raid bingo nights. They didn’t try to stop people from playing poker in the privacy of their homes, but that’s the hopeless mission undertaken by the righteous right.
So far, Republicans have staved off gay marriage, but over the long term it’s another losing cause. Younger voters already are turned off by what they perceive as the party’s homophobia. As the public gets used to seeing happy couples exchanging vows, the taboo against gay marriage will ease — and Republicans will be remembered as priggish wedding crashers.
When conservatives pushed for welfare reform by preaching the work ethic, they connected with mainstream voters of all ages. When they opposed abortion, they appealed to a substantial number of Americans. Even many people who called themselves pro-choice could sympathize with Republican efforts to put some limits on abortion.
But protecting a cluster of cells the size of a grain of sand is not what most voters think of as a traditional family value. Embryonic stem-cell research is so popular that even some conservative Republicans voted for the bill allowing it to be federally financed. Bush’s veto this week kept in place the ban on federal funds, pleasing religious conservatives, but they’ll never be able to stop this research.
In fact, their opposition is probably a boon to the researchers. Even before this week’s veto, anger over the ban has prompted states and private philanthropists to put up their own money. They’ve committed well over $3 billion to this research in the next decade, which might be more than Washington would have provided anyway — and the federal money would have come with strings attached.
Stem-cell researchers can benefit from the freedom enjoyed by scientists who developed in vitro fertilization, which Washington also refused to finance because it was originally denounced as immoral. The absence of federal involvement sped progress by allowing unregulated private labs and clinics to innovate.
Given the other sources of money for stem-cell research, including private companies that see potentially lucrative profits, there’s no pressing need for Washington to get involved. And as long as some Americans — a minority, but a passionate minority — oppose the work, there’s no reason to force them to subsidize it. The result would just be more pressure for Washington to impose restrictions on what researchers could do.
So even though I have no moral qualms about the research, I think Bush’s veto was good public policy. But it wasn’t good politics. He tried to present it as a defense of life — he even used that old campaign ploy, posing with babies — but he couldn’t compete with the images of paralyzed adults asking for help.
As the baby boomers age, it’s not smart to be known as the party that won’t pay for medical research. It’s not smart to have Michael J. Fox and Nancy Reagan blaming you for blocking cures for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, or to be remembered as the party that ignored Christopher Reeve’s pleas before he died. No matter how moral the Church Lady tries to sound, she’ll never win an argument with Superman in a wheelchair.