By FRANK RICH
HOW time flies when democracy is on the march in the Middle East! Five whole years have passed since ominous Qaeda chatter reached its pre-9/11 fever pitch, culminating in the President’s Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
History has since condemned President Bush for ignoring that intelligence. But to say that he did nothing that summer is a bum rap. Just three days later, on Aug. 9, he took a break from clearing brush in Crawford to reveal the real priority of his presidency, which had nothing to do with a nuisance like terrorism. His first prime-time address after more than six months in office was devoted to embryonic stem-cell research instead. Placing his profound religious convictions above the pagan narcissism of Americans hoping for cures to diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes, he decreed restrictions to shackle the advance of medical science.
Whatever else is to be said about the Decider, he’s consistent. Having dallied again this summer while terrorism upends the world, he has once more roused himself to take action — on stem cells. His first presidential veto may be bad news for the critically ill, but it was a twofer for the White House. It not only flattered the president’s base. It also drowned out some awkward news: the prime minister he installed in Baghdad, Nuri al-Maliki, and the fractious Parliament of Iraq’s marvelous new democracy had called a brief timeout from their civil war to endorse the sole cause that unites them, the condemnation of Israel.
The news is not all dire, however. While Mr. Bush’s Iraq project threatens to deliver the entire region to Iran’s ayatollahs, this month may also be remembered as a turning point in America’s own religious wars. The president’s politically self-destructive stem-cell veto and the simultaneous undoing of the religious right’s former golden boy, Ralph Reed, in a Republican primary for lieutenant governor in Georgia are landmark defeats for the faith-based politics enshrined by Mr. Bush’s presidency. If we can’t beat the ayatollahs over there, maybe we’re at least starting to rout them here.
That the administration’s stem-cell policy is a political fiasco for its proponents is evident from a single fact: Bill Frist, the most craven politician in Washington, ditched the president. In past pandering to his party’s far-right fringe, Mr. Frist, who calls himself a doctor, misdiagnosed the comatose Terri Schiavo’s condition after watching her on videotape and, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, refused to dispute an abstinence program’s canard that tears and sweat could transmit AIDS. If Senator Frist is belatedly standing up for stem-cell research, you can bet he’s read some eye-popping polls. His ignorance about H.I.V. notwithstanding, he also knows that the facts about stem cells are not on Mr. Bush’s side.
The voting public has learned this, too. Back in 2001, many Americans gave the president the benefit of the doubt when he said that his stem-cell “compromise” could make “more than 60” cell lines available for federally financed study. Those lines turned out to be as illusory as Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction: there were only 22, possibly all of them now contaminated or otherwise useless. Fittingly, the only medical authority to endorse the Bush policy at the time, the Houston cancer doctor John Mendelsohn, was a Bush family friend. He would later become notorious for lending his empirical skills to the Enron board’s audit committee.
This time around, with the administration’s credibility ruined by Iraq, official lies about science didn’t fly. When Karl Rove said that embryonic stem cells weren’t required because there was “far more promise from adult stem cells,” The Chicago Tribune investigated and found that the White House couldn’t produce a single stem-cell researcher who agreed. (Ahmad Chalabi, alas, has no medical degree.) In the journal Science, three researchers summed up the consensus of the reality-based scientific community: misleading promises about adult stem cells “cruelly deceive patients.”
No less cruelly deceptive was the photo op staged to sell Mr. Bush’s veto: television imagery of the president cradling so-called Snowflake babies, born via in vitro fertilization from frozen embryos that had been “adopted.” As Senator Arlen Specter has pointed out, only 128 of the 400,000 or so rejected embryos languishing in deep freeze in fertility clinics have been adopted. Many of the rest are destined to be tossed in the garbage.
If you believe, as Mr. Bush says he does, that either discarding or conducting research with I.V.F. embryos is murder, then fertility clinic doctors, like stem-cell researchers, belong on death row. But the president, so proud of drawing a firm “moral” line, will no sooner crack down on I.V.F. than he did on Kim Jong Il: The second-term Bush has been downsized to a paper tiger. His party’s base won’t be so shy. Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who led the Senate anti-stem-cell offensive and sees himself as the religious right’s presidential candidate, has praised the idea of limiting the number of eggs fertilized in vitro to “one or two at a time.” A Kentucky state legislator offered a preview of coming attractions, writing a bill making the fertilization of multiple eggs in I.V.F. treatments a felony.
Tacticians in both political parties have long theorized that if a conservative Supreme Court actually struck down Roe v. Wade, it would set Republicans back at the polls for years. Mr. Bush’s canonization of clumps of frozen cells over potential cancer cures may jump-start that backlash. We’ll see this fall. Already one Republican senatorial candidate, Michael Steele of Maryland, has stepped in Mr. Bush’s moral morass by egregiously comparing stem-cell research to Nazi experiments on Jews during the Holocaust.
Mr. Reed’s primary defeat is as much a blow to religious-right political clout as the White House embrace of stem-cell fanaticism. The man who revolutionized the face of theocratic politics in the 1990’s with a telegenic choirboy’s star power has now changed his movement’s face again, this time to mud.
The humiliating Reed defeat — by 12 points against a lackluster rival in a conservative primary in a conservative state — is being pinned on his association with the felonious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who also tainted that other exemplar of old-time religion, Tom DeLay. True enough, but it’s what Mr. Reed did for Mr. Abramoff’s clients that is most damning, far more so than the golf junkets and money-grubbing. The causes Mr. Reed enabled through manufactured grass-roots campaigns (unwittingly, he maintains) were everything he was supposedly against: Indian casinos and legal loopholes that allowed forced abortions and sexual slavery in the work force of an American commonwealth, the Northern Mariana Islands.
Hypocrisy among self-aggrandizing evangelists is as old as Elmer Gantry — older, actually. But Mr. Reed wasn’t some campfire charlatan. He was the religious right’s most effective poster boy in mainstream America. He had been recruited for precisely that mission by Pat Robertson, who made him the frontman for the Christian Coalition in 1989, knowing full well that Mr. Reed’s smarts and youth could do P.R. wonders that Mr. Robertson and the rest of the baggage-laden Falwell generation of Moral Majority demagogues could not. And it worked. In 1995, Mr. Reed was rewarded with the cover of Time, for representing “the most thorough penetration of the secular world of American politics by an essentially religious organization in this century.”
Actually, the Christian Coalition was soon to be accused of inflating its membership, Enron-accounting style, and was careening into debt. Only three years after his Time cover, Mr. Reed, having ditched the coalition to set up shop as a political consultant, sent his self-incriminating e-mail to Mr. Abramoff: “I need to start humping in corporate accounts!” He also humped in noncorporate accounts, like the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004.
By 2005 Mr. Reed had become so toxic that Mr. Bush wouldn’t be caught on camera with him in Georgia. But the Bush-Rove machine was nonetheless yoked to Mr. Reed in their crusades: the demonization of gay couples as boogeymen (and women) in election years, the many assaults on health (not just in stem-cell laboratories but in federal agencies dealing with birth control and sex education), the undermining of the science of evolution. The beauty of Mr. Reed’s unmasking is the ideological impact: the radical agenda to which he lent an ersatz respectability has lost a big fig leaf, and all the president’s men, tied down like Gulliver in Iraq, cannot put it together again to bamboozle suburban voters.
It’s possible that even Joe Lieberman, a fellow traveler in the religious right’s Schiavo and indecency jeremiads, could be swept out with Rick Santorum in the 2006 wave. Mr. Lieberman is hardly the only Democrat in the Senate who signed on to the war in Iraq, but he’s surely the most sanctimonious. He is also the only Democrat whose incessant Bible thumping (while running for vice president in 2000) was deemed “inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours” by the Anti-Defamation League. As Ralph Reed used to say: amen.
Last Sunday’s column misstated the location of a children’s lemonade stand patronized by President Bush last month. It was in Columbus, Ohio, not Raleigh, N.C.