Wednesday, August 25, 2010

President Obama's Big Opportunity on Stem Cell Research--He Can Do What Harry Truman Did in 1948.

Amidst gathering gloom about a weak economy , and thus about Democratic political prospects this November, President Barack Obama has a big opportunity to regain some initiative--and maybe a lot of initiative.  How?  He could take up the stem cell issue, and demand that Congress take immediate action to void Judge Royce Lamberth's ruling, blocking federally funded embryonic stem cell research, in the only sure way--by immediately voiding the law that Lamberth upheld.  As in, do it this summer--right away.   Obama could give 'em some hell, just as Harry Truman did, 62 years ago.  Some hell, that is, on behalf of better health for all of us.

Congress act quickly?  That might seem like an oxymoron, but Congress can act quickly if it wants to. Back in 1941, Congress declared war on Japan the day after Pearl Harbor.   After 9-11, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act in less than six weeks--and that was an infinitely more complicated piece of legislation, written from scratch, than simply adjusting the stem cell limits in question--the Dickey-Wicker amendment from 1995.

But of course, it's almost easier to imagine Congress moving quickly than it is to imagine Obama becoming Truman-esque.

Still, if Obama were to do make such a call, summoning Congress back into session, he would have a lot of support in the major media, as we can see in this editorial in The New York Times, which called Lamberth's ruling "a serious blow to medical research," and concluded, "Congress should settle this issue once and for all—by passing legislation that ensures continued federal funding to support research on stem cells derived from human embryos."  But when should Congress do this?  Right away?  Or when Congress, operating at normal-government speed, gets around to it?  

And what about the public?   Would Americans back Obama if he called for immediate action to get stem cell research back online, moving forward?  Would the public react to pictures and stories such as this, seen in The Washington Post--about an American girl going to China to get treatment that she can't get here?   

Here's data from Gallup, which shows that by a 59:32 margin, Americans support embryonic stem-cell research:

One can argue these polls, of course, but Obama has long made his position clear--he is for such research.  Indeed, his Justice Department has already said that it will appeal Lamberth's ruling.  But who knows when a final ruling will come?  And who knows what legal judgment will ultimately be reached?   The courts are the courts--they can confound all sides.  

Moreover, Congress is the first branch of government--it says so right in the Constitution; the powers of Congress are enumerated in Article One, while the Executive Branch is Article Two, and the Judicial Branch is Article Three.   So Obama and the stem-cell cause would be better off if he went right to the source of national power--the Congress--demanding that Capitol Hill override this unfortunate decision by clarifying or changing the law.  It would all be on the legal and Constitutional up-and-up, it would just happen quickly.

And there's a grand precedent for this--an especially encouraging precedent for Democrats.  Obama could emulate the "Turnip Day" speech made by another embattled Democratic president, Truman, back in 1948.  Truman, it will be remembered, became President in 1945, after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Given the sad circumstances by which Truman came into the White House, he was somewhat resented by FDR loyalists, and underestimated by opposition Republicans.  Ill feelings toward Truman were deepened by the walloping that the Democrats suffered in the 1946 midterm elections, when they lost both houses of Congress for the first time since the early '30s.   Much of the Democrats' problem in '46 was that they had simply been in power too long--the GOP's national slogan that year, "Had Enough?" perfectly captured the public mood.   It was time for a change--at least some change.

Truman himself was seen as inadequate and wishy washy for the first three years of his presidency. (The greatness with which Truman is now endowed would come only later.)  One of the many jokes at Truman's expense in those years was, "To err is Truman."   And speaking of errors, the pollsters all predicted that Truman would lose, and lose badly, in the '48 presidential election to popular New York Governor Tom Dewey.

Yet as we all know, Truman came back from the political depths to win re-election in 1948, and not only that, swept the Democrats back into power in the House and the Senate.   How did he do it?  Truman and his consigliere, Clark Clifford, understood that the basic New Deal alignment was still in place--that is, the Republican victory in '46 was basically a spasm, a reaction to the accumulated ills of incumbency; yet even so, the country was still basically center-left--Democratic--that was the natural default for the electorate.  So the challenge then, to Democrats, was both simple and profound: rally Democratic voters back to the Democratic party.  And the way to do that was to loudly blow the trumpet for popular New Deal-ish programs; Truman called his agenda "The Fair Deal"--close enough.

The decisive moment in this rallying comeback campaign was Truman's "Turnip Day" speech, which he  delivered on July 15 at the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.  In that speech, Truman called Congress back into special session on July 26, which was Turnip Day in Missouri folklore.  Truman challenged the Republicans to come back and enact popular legislation concerning Social Security, civil rights, and, yes, national health insurance.   But the Republicans leading the 80th Congress reacted negatively to Truman's call.  In so doing, the GOP did not give Truman any legislative victories, but they did give Truman a political victory--the Democratic president could call the Republican-led Congress the "do nothing Congress," ignoring popular action items.  That label stuck.

In essence, Truman made a bet. He was betting that the liberal agenda was popular, and so that if Republicans staked out positions against that agenda, the voters would punish them at the polls in November.   For their part, Republicans, too, were making a bet--betting that the people were with them as they roadblocked Truman's ideas; moreover, many GOPers obviously hankered to repeal the New Deal in toto. (We'll never know what would have happened if the Republican leadership of that 80th Congress would have met Truman halfway; if they had, Truman might well have been defeated later that year, because the voters would have thought that they could get popular programs and get some fresh blood in Washington.)

But instead, the GOP stood firm against Truman in July--and was blown away in November.   Dewey, the House, the Senate, all defeated.

Sixty-two years later, is stem cell as big a cause to the voters as the overall New Deal?  The answer, of course, is "no."  Although here at Serious Medicine Strategy we believe that the cure-cause is a pretty big thing.   We would further argue that medicine should be a much bigger issue than it is, and that the voters would react positively to some strong medical leadership from Washington.  

But of course, there's little chance that Obama will do anything of the sort.  Populist invocations are just not his way.   Moreover, Democrats these days have staked out their position on healthcare--they are for health insurance, and that's about it.  Everything else is secondary, or tertiary.  Moreover, many Democrats cringe when they think of "healthcare" these days, for fear of enraging the Tea Partiers.   So even though stem cell, and Serious Medicine, is much different from "health insurance reform" and all the financialist wonkisms that we haven been marinated in for the last two years, stem cell/Serious Medicine and health insurance are close enough to each other that the Obamans, and the Pelosi-Reid Democrats, likely won't touch anything that could reopen the health issue in an unpredictable way.

And that's their loss, because the chance to redefine the healthcare issue away from ex post facto insurance that helps a relative few to the ex ante issue that helps the many would be a great opportunity for the President--or for any politician willing to take a pro-research stand.

We might add that stem cell is an issue-opportunity, too, for Republicans.   For those Republicans who support embryonic stem cell research--which is to say, they support medical progress, and scientific inquiry--here's their chance to speak up.  They could propose legislation to fix Dickey-Wicker.  Indeed, they could call for a special session of Congress themselves.  They wouldn't get it, of course, for all the reasons mentioned above, but as Truman demonstrated, more than six decades ago, in politics, you can win by losing.

H/T to's Tim Noah.  This point came to me while I was chatting with him on  a forthcoming Bloggingheads.TV.

Update: Democrats seem to be stirring.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for this, Can I suggest an article about an interesting cell counting technology. May be of interest.

  2. A serious article, enjoyed it. On a lighter note, we could just turn things over to Tom Coburn and Bernie Sanders. They may be nuts, but at they are patriots.

  3. Embryonic stem cell:
    We are talking about a human life at its very early stage; but human life nonetheless.

    I believe life begins at conception, that creating embryos through in-vitro fertilization is wrong.

    Stem cells can be harvested from many parts of our body including umbilical cords.

    We don’t have to kill a human being to save another.

    Now, if we just planted the embryonic stem cell in say a 50 ish woman’s womb ...... Wa-La, 9 months later the baby will appear and say 55 years later be a journalist.

    Just saying!