Published: 22 July 2006
Is America going mad again? At first glance, events this week might suggest so. As the whole world pleads for action to end the latest chapter of the agony of Lebanon, the one power remotely capable of doing so washes its hands of the crisis. And then back home, in the name of religious zealotry, the country seemingly turns its back on embryonic stem cell research. Scientific advances that would bring hope to millions afflicted by Alzheimer's and other crippling illnesses have been held hostage to the sanctity of a cluster of human cells no larger than the full stop that ends this sentence.
Not so, I am happy to report. Sanity still prevails on the streets of the sole superpower. Of course Americans instinctively side with Israel. But Lebanon's torment, the images of wanton destruction in Beirut are very much in people's minds. The same goes for the stem cell controversy. Monday's debate on the issue in the Senate was excellent. Sure, it was tinged by short-term electoral calculation; what political debate is not? But both sides of the argument were aired. And the outcome almost exactly reflected public opinion. By a roughly two-to-one margin Americans support embryonic stem cell research, subject to strict supervision. The final Senate vote in favour was 63 to 37.
No, the problem was what happened next - the very first veto issued by George W Bush. There is a surreal quality now to this White House. It's as if Bush has finally wandered off into a world of his own, as if tumbling popularity and the fact that he will never again face the voters have freed him from the constraints of normal political behaviour. We see it on the Middle East where, in contrast to every one of his far more knowledgeable predecessors, from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, he has decided that the way forward is to give Israel its head, and let the chips fall where they may.
Now that Bush has broken his veto duck, the distinction of being the only president not to have issued one belongs to Thomas Jefferson, the third president. Predictably, the 43rd has not used his first veto to block wasteful public spending or some other measure which harms the national interest. Instead he has chosen a moral issue - and in the process adopted a stance shot through with inconsistencies.
Let us pass over the inconsistencies which extend beyond medical science; for instance, if all human life is "sacred", then what about the innocent Iraqis, Israelis and Lebanese dying each day in the Middle East? And how does the former governor of Texas square his reverence for a cluster of cells with his enthusiasm for the death penalty?
As was to be expected, Bush announced his decision at one of those elaborately choreographed White House ceremonies, surrounded by so-called "snowflake" children born from frozen embryos at in vitro fertilisation clinics. Embryos were not to be used as "spare parts", the President declared, pointing at the giggling, squalling but unarguably vibrant display of life around him.
But even Bush must be aware that the vast bulk of surplus embryos at IVF clinics end up in medical incinerators. The only way to end this practice is to end IVF, full stop. And if Bush is so opposed to government funding of embryonic stem cell research, why on earth did he not ban it outright back in August 2001 when he took his original decision, instead of limiting funding to existing stem cell lines - which incidentally, scientists say, are now starting to deteriorate?
But of course we know the answer. When Bush makes up his mind to do something - be it invading Iraq, letting Israel rip, or putting the brakes on cutting-edge biomedical science - neither hell nor high water can induce second thoughts.
And as Bush is equally aware, his decision will not stop stem cell research. The US, thank heavens, has a federal system, and in cases like this a presidential veto is very much less than meets the eye. The central government is only part of the equation. Not a dollar it receives in taxes will go to new embryonic stem cell work - but dollars paid in state taxes are quite another matter. Within hours of the veto, California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was lending $150m to the state's stem cell agency, to restart research that had been blocked by lawsuits. Nor will private research, including that conducted by universities, be directly affected.
The same however cannot be said of Republican electoral prospects at the crucial mid-term elections in November. You could argue that the veto is a gambit straight out of the Karl Rove political manual, intended to, as they say, "fire up" the Christian conservatives who are most likely to vote in elections whose turnout is traditionally barely half that of presidential elections. If so, the tactic is extremely risky.
For one thing, it is to defy not just Schwarzenegger and a fair chunk of his own party. The President is also taking on the likes of Nancy Reagan, whose husband's final years were ruined by Alzheimer's, and the shade of Christopher Reeve. It also makes the Republican party appear yet again to be in thrall to a minority on the far right, yoked to issues such as gay marriage and flag-burning that are utterly irrelevant to the daily concerns of the average voter.
Appearances to the contrary, Republican control of Congress ultimately rests not so much on the religious right, as on a smaller band of moderates elected from traditionally Democratic states in the north east and the midwest. The polarisation of American politics had already made these an endangered species. This week's veto can only hasten an extinction to match that already suffered by Democrats from the south. If so, a Republican defeat is on the cards.
Happily, however, this would confirm that all of America has not taken leave of its senses. Bush may inhabit his separate universe, but at least he would no longer be unaccountable. As I have written many times before, the real disaster of recent American politics has been the breakdown of the constitutional system of checks and balances. If the Democrats capture even one chamber, a crucial check on executive power would be back in place. And if a misguided stem cell veto has brought that day closer, then more power to it.