Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Frist, That Liberal

I love the irony of it all. As you probably know by now, Bill Frist, Mr. Justice Sunday, broke ranks with some of his conservative backers by speaking out in favor of stem cell research. Today, The Washington Post notes how Mr. Frist’s comments will likely hurt his chance for the presidency in 2008.

Until his July 29 speech on the Senate floor, Frist had been viewed as a solid ally of religious conservatives, building his likely presidential candidacy on a strategy of securing a solid base of support on the right. Frist had been the featured speaker at Justice Sunday I, calling for an end to filibusters of judicial nominees, but he did not attend Sunday's event.

Every winner of the Republican presidential nomination since Ronald Reagan in 1980 has had significant support from social conservatives, won in large measure by embracing stands acceptable to antiabortion groups. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who denounced the religious right during his bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, was defeated that year by George W. Bush, who had worked hard to cultivate social conservatives.
Some conservatives are trying to play down the impact of Frist’s unexpected support for stem cell research.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and the leading organizer of Justice Sunday II, said: "I have a lot of respect for Senator Frist. We disagree with him on one issue, but it's a big issue. . . . I would not write him off; I would just say it will be very difficult to get support from the pro-life community. This is a big issue to disagree on, [but] it certainly does not end our friendship."
From a strategic standpoint, Perkins is making the right move. There’s no need to show a major crack in the unified front until it’s absolutely necessary. Others have not been so cautious.

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, who spoke by video to the Justice Sunday II assembly, has steadily escalated his criticism of Frist, comparing his stand on embryonic stem cell research to Nazi experimentation on human subjects during WWII.

"The Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there would have been some discoveries there that benefited mankind," he said on his radio show last week. "You remove ethics and morality, and you get what happened in Nazi Germany." Then, specifically addressing Frist, Dobson said, "there's a higher order of ethics here."
Oh, the eloquence of Mr. Dobson. He’s like a modern day Patrick Henry.

Like fanatical reactionaries before them, members of the religious right seem intent on purging their ranks. Move an inch to the left (and let’s be honest, Dr. Frist has a lot more inching to do before he’s even within sight of the center) and you’re a traitor. There’s an interesting phenomenon at play here. Christian conservatives embrace the all-or-nothing, culture war mentality that pits them against everything and everyone to the left of their perch on the extreme right. It’s a core ideal of the movement’s identity. At the same time, it’s the movement’s most self-destructive feature. If the religious right insists on sloughing off every member who strays even a bit, the movement will eventually be reduced to an intensely fanatical, but ineffectually small nucleus

It’s absurd. It’s bad logic. It’s bad policy. But if the religious right want to drive themselves off a cliff, I’m all for it.

--Matthew Mccoy