The Republicans' Stem-Cell Gamble

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The Senate's passage today of a bill that would expand federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research will be a short-lived victory for supporters. Bush plans to veto the bill later this week, and the Republican-led House, according to House Majority leader John Boehner, will uphold the veto. The doomed bill is more than just another round of conservative vs. moderate battling in the GOP. It is the latest bet in a high-stakes gamble pitting the Republicans' short-term electoral tactics against their long-term strategy of building a permanent majority.

Ahead of a busy campaign season, Congressional Republicans this summer are advancing so-called values issues like Constitutional amendments banning flag burning and gay marriage, bills to grant fetus's rights, and a statute "protecting" the Pledge of Allegiance, in the hopes of pleasing the slice of Americans that care most fervently about these causes and vote on them. That may drive up turnout for the Republicans this fall. But long-term party growth can't be found among those voters. Republican leaders have declared suburbanites and Hispanics to be key constituencies that need to be cultivated for the party's long-term health. But both groups oppose key elements of the GOP's conservative agenda.

Only around one-fifth of Americans oppose federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, for example. But they are, by and large, active Republican base voters who are already alienated and threatening to withhold support from Republicans this fall. The majority of suburban voters support the promise of stem cell research that might cure their parents' Alzheimer's disease or their kids' diabetes. The measure that passed today would be popular with them; its expected failure will please the base at their expense.

Hispanics also may be on the wrong side of the Republican red-meat agenda this summer. Republicans in the House have made much of the need for border security, passing a bill that would make it a felony to aid illegal immigrants. A recent Pew poll found Hispanic Americans were "feeling more discriminated against, politically energized and unified following the immigration policy debate" of the spring and early summer. The poll found little growth in Hispanic support for Democrats, but the drop in support for Republicans was measurable: Only 16% of Latinos believe the GOP has the best position on immigration, down from 25% in 2004.

And in recent weeks the House leadership has bypassed a raft of issues aimed at building support among suburban voters in favor of pushing for "values agenda" items, like penalizing online gambling, a gay marriage ban and an upcoming vote on protecting the Pledge of Allegiance from certain kinds of judicial action. Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, head of a GOP centrist group in the House, argues that suburban voters are crucial to the long-term growth of the party, and has put forward a centrist, "suburban agenda" aimed at drawing them in. But elements of the agenda — like anti-sprawl legislation, which would give tax breaks for the preservation of open space in suburbs and exurbs, and tax breaks for savings for higher education — have yet to even reach the floor.

The Republican leadership is aware of the conflict between the short- and long-term interests of the party and is doing what it can to diminish the cost. On stem cells, for example, the tactic is to get the battle over with as soon as possible. The GOP leadership chose the gap between the July 4th and August recesses as a low-visibility moment for the vote and compressed the time the voting would take. Bush's veto, and the expected House failure to override it, will come within days and will soon have been replaced by other issues. "It'll all be over in 72 hours," says one top GOP aide, "It'll be like a summer storm." At least that's the plan.