WASHINGTON—President Bush is poised to cast the first veto of his presidency on Wednesday. He'll use it to block legislation that would expand federal research on embryonic stem cells aimed at finding cures for many diseases.
His choice for such a signature event is fraught with potential political consequences. Is it from personal belief or political expedience?
Many Republicans, including Nancy Reagan, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, favor the stem-cell bill, and most Americans—regardless of political affiliation—support stem-cell research.
While Bush's veto may curry favor with religious conservatives, who compose the cornerstone of his political base, his stand may alienate moderate Republicans, independent voters and others who see the research as key to helping save lives.
"On the Democratic side of things, it's an ace in the hole. It's a good wedge issue and a good base issue that appeals to crossover Republicans," said John Zogby, an independent pollster. "For the president, it's business as usual. This is a guy who's staked his entire career on shoring up the base, and this is a base kind of issue."
But Bush's veto may be not so much a political act as one of personal conscience.
His faith is central to his character, and he has spoken about the issue in the past in moral terms, not electoral ones.
"I believe human life is a sacred gift from our creator," Bush said in an August 2001 nationally televised address on the stem-cell issue. "I worry about a culture that devalues life, and I believe as your president I have an obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world."
Paul Weyrich, the chairman and chief executive officer of the conservative Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, says Bush's veto decision is devoid of politics. Weyrich remembers imploring Bush to use his veto earlier in his administration, but he said the president was reluctant to quarrel with a Republican-controlled Congress.
"Finally, there was an issue where he couldn't compromise," Weyrich said. "He's a pro-life president who genuinely believes that destroying an embryo is taking a potential human life."
White House press secretary Tony Snow also says the veto is about morality, not politics.
"The president believes strongly that, for the purpose of research, it's inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder. He's one of them," Snow said.
Still, some analysts think that Bush's veto is both political and personal.
"It is personal, but it's also the modus operandi of the Bush administration: This is base politics and wedge politics as practiced by Bush and Karl Rove," pollster Zogby said.
John Green, a noted authority on the politics of religion, said the president's stand should endear him to evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, both on substantive terms and as a symbol that he keeps his word. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, is a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Whether the veto will endanger Republican lawmakers at the polls is debatable.
"They will deal with it in the way they have dealt with it in the past," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "And I don't see any huge consequences politically on this issue."
Other Republicans, however, see risk.
Tony Fabrizio, who was the chief pollster for Republican Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, said Bush's veto could make Republicans in Northeastern and suburban districts more vulnerable.
"This is a great issue in the heartland of Kansas, in Georgia and South Carolina, but does it help you in New York, Connecticut and California?" Fabrizio said. "You can't imagine anyone opposing stem cells would be popular in those districts."