A close-minded presidency

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

President Bush portrays himself as a principled leader who sticks to his guns, and firm values and clear goals are certainly crucial to any successful presidency. Americans gave Bush a second term in large part because he seemed more determined and decisive than John Kerry.

But eight years in office is a long time. A president who never learns or grows runs the risk of sounding rigid and reactionary. Every change of position is not a flip-flop. Sometimes it’s the only intelligent reaction to shifting circumstances.

That brings up the debate over federal funding for stem cell research, and the very different positions taken by two conservative Republicans, President Bush and Sen. Bill Frist.

Frist, a heart surgeon who wants to be president, has looked carefully at the medical facts and concluded that the true “pro-life” position is to back expanded federal funding. As he told the Senate: “We have to work together to allow science to advance.”

Bush takes a theological view, not a scientific one. He remains adamantly committed to a position he formed five years ago: that very limited federal support for stem cell research is sufficient to encourage scientific progress. Never mind that experts like Frist say this view no longer makes sense. Damn the facts, the president has his principles.

Even if Bush is sincere in his religious beliefs and is not just pandering to his right-wing supporters, his position is still a tragic mistake, an exercise in willful ignorance, not strong leadership. By vetoing a bill to expand federal funding – and defying solid majorities among lawmakers, scientists and voters – Bush is impeding medical advances that could improve the health of countless Americans. His pro-life philosophy is really anti-life.

Stem cells derived from fertilized embryos have the potential to reproduce themselves, raising the possibility of new treatments for a range of debilitating conditions, from cancer and Parkinson’s to spinal cord injuries. The problem: research destroys the embryos, and religious conservatives condemn this process as immoral.

In August 2001, Bush offered a compromise: federal funds could support research using embryos that had already been destroyed, but not using any stem cell “lines” created after that date. It was a restrictive but defensible position, and Frist supported it, hoping that the pre-existing “lines” would fuel an expansive research effort.

But that hope proved false. The “lines” have deteriorated badly. As Frist put it: “Over the last five years, we’ve learned that ... while human embryonic stem-cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases.”

The key word here is “learned.” Frist was willing to look at the facts, alter his position and support legislation allowing research on excess embryos stored by fertility clinics that would be discarded anyway. But Bush is not interested in learning. It’s not in his nature to change course or admit mistakes. And this resolutely close-minded approach to governing differs sharply from the philosophy followed by Ronald Reagan, a president that conservatives have elevated to godly status.

As Richard Reeves’ fine new book, “President Reagan,” makes clear, The Gipper was often willing to learn from experience. Reagan believed deeply in tax cuts and supply-side economics, but when deficits swelled to dangerous levels he raised revenues. Early in his presidency Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire,” but then forged a relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev that led to sweeping arms reduction pacts.

Reagan’s final lesson came from his final illness. After watching her husband suffer the ravages of Alzheimer’s, Nancy Reagan became an ardent advocate for stem cell research. Reality, not ideology, shaped her view, in the same way that reality altered her husband’s approach to both taxes and tyrants.

In contrast, the current president lives in a world of absolutes, and refuses to recognize that most moral choices are not between good and evil, but between competing virtues.

In an op ed piece for The Washington Post, Frist proudly described himself as “pro-life.” But he is willing to destroy fertilized embryos – which would never become babies anyway – in the name of helping people already born. “I hope,” he wrote, “that we can redeem this loss of life in part by using these embryos to seed research that will save lives in the future.”

This is precisely the calculation, the moral choice, that Bush refuses to consider. And a lot of sick and injured Americans are paying a huge price for his stubbornness.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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