President Obama lifts restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research today, providing a moment to mull over the politics of an issue that typically plays second fiddle to abortion and gay marriage in the nation's culture wars. I see four political forces shaping today's White House action and the fallout:
1. General support for federally funded embryonic stem cell research. There will be lots of discussion today about the controversy surrounding the issue, but only about a third of Americans strongly oppose embryonic stem cell research. A 2007 Pew poll found that 51 percent of Americans said it's more important to conduct stem cell research that might lead to new cures than to avoid destroying human embryos. An additional 14 percent said they were unsure, while just 35 percent said it's more important not to destroy human embryos.
Sure, this issue's controversial. But there's nowhere near the opposition to embryonic stem cell research as there is to abortion, where more than 60 percent of Americans favor more restrictions. Conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholics might not see a distinction between the two procedures, but lots of other Americans do.
2. As if the Republicans didn't have enough political problems already, embryonic stem cell research is another sticky wicket for the GOP. According to Pew, 60 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents back the research, while just 37 percent of Republicans do. That explains why support for embryonic stem cell research is such a no-brainer for the Democrats—it's the rare wedge issue in which the wedge breaks the Dems' way.
As on so many social issues, white evangelicals—the most reliably Republican voters in the country—are a lot farther to the right on stem cell research than the rest of the country. White evangelicals are the only major religious group in which a clear majority opposes embryonic stem cell research. The GOP is caught between its base and the moderate voters it needs if it's to start winning elections again.
3. Though they're unwavering in their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, conservative Christians know they face a stiff uphill climb in the court of public opinion, especially after culturally conservative Missouri voters amended their state Constitution to protect embryonic stem cell research in 2006. The Christian right hasn't been able to reverse public support for embryonic stem cell research, but it has made progress. A Pew poll shows that support for embryonic stem cell research is eroding somewhat, from 57 percent in 2005 to 51 percent in 2007.
Which is why the White House domestic policy adviser is handing the issue with sensitivity, telling the New York Times: "We are committed to pursuing stem cell research quite responsibly, but we recognize there are a range of beliefs on this."
4. Traditional antiabortion groups will use today's White House action as a teaching moment to push back on Obama's overtures toward conservative Christians. "[This] puts to rest any doubt: Barack Obama is [the] most pro-abortion president in our nation's history," says CatholicVote.org President Brian Burch. That's a harsh condemnation, but there will be harsher ones from conservative Christian groups today.