The president made his first-ever veto this week, sending back a bill that would have loosened restraints on government funding for embryonic stem cell research. But ABC’s Jake Tapper tells Brooke that while the veto itself sent one message, press releases from the White House were sending another.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It wasn't the top story this week, but on Wednesday, President Bush for the first time vetoed a bill that would have loosened restraints on government funding for embryonic stem cell research. The president imposed those restrictions in 2001, and promised he would veto any legislative effort to lift them.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect, so I vetoed it. [APPLAUSE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most media time this week was spent on the Middle East, but that doesn't mean the White House didn't take a stab at framing the conversation. Jake Tapper is senior national correspondent for ABC News, and he noticed that the White House press releases on the issue have contained decidedly mixed messages. Jake, welcome to OTM.
JAKE TAPPER: Thanks. It's a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell us briefly what it is that the president vetoed.
JAKE TAPPER: The House and the Senate had both voted to allow federal funding of research, medical, scientific research, that uses stem cells taken from embryos. And these are embryos, it should be pointed out, from fertility clinics. They are unused embryos that are frozen and otherwise generally are disposed of as medical waste, a few thousand every month.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, when the president imposed his restrictions in 2001, he said that government money could be directed to researching a limited number of existing embryonic stem cell lines. Can you explain what that means?
JAKE TAPPER: Sure. It means that when the president made his decision, what he called "a middle-ground decision" in August, 2001, he said that those embryos that had already been destroyed, the life or death decision had been made, therefore the research on those lines could continue. But no further federal funding would go to any more research on any new lines, meaning no new destruction of embryos.
But here's the really interesting point with the White House. Throughout the 2004 campaign, they were very sensitive. Whenever John Kerry said that they were implementing a ban on federal funding of stem cell research, they always pointed out, look, we grandfathered in these existing stem cell lines, and, in fact the White House, as recently as this week, was heralding - these are quotes now from their own press releases - "President Bush is the first president to ever fund embryonic stem cell research." "President Bush's stem cell policy has made federally-funded stem cell lines widely available to scientists."
They're talking about how great it is that they're doing this, and in the same week, the same week, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow calls destroying an embryo "murder" - a legal term - and the president vetoed this against the wishes of the House, the Senate, and, according to polls, 60 percent of the American people.
Now, my question is if one thinks that the destruction of a fertilized egg or an embryo is murder, and that is certainly a morally defensible position, but if you think that, then why are you bragging on a different page on your website about funding research of those murdered embryos?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the administration had its way, how do you think it would want this story to be covered? One press release for one constituency, one for another?
JAKE TAPPER: Well, first of all, the White House knows how this is going to be covered, which is, president stands in the way of medical progress. That's not their view of it, but they think that the so-called liberal media will portray it that way.
But with the conflicting messages that they're putting out the same day, the same communication shop, I think they're hoping that swing voters, who will decide important elections in Missouri, in Ohio and elsewhere in this country this November, that swing voters will hear, no, the president is reasonable, he's taken this common-sense approach down the middle and he supported the grandfathered stem cell lines to continued studying and continued research. And then for the base, the president took a stand and is in favor of banning this horrible, outrageous procedure outright.
What's so odd about it is this White House is usually so good at staying on message and having one consistent, coherent point of view, even if you disagree with it. And I almost even wonder if there's some [LAUGHS] rogue elements in the White House communication shop that support this research and are putting out these press releases unbeknownst to Tony Snow and the president. That's the only [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rogue elements in the White House press office? You must be joking!
JAKE TAPPER: [LAUGHS] Well, I doubt it, just because it is such a disciplined operation. But I have no idea why they're doing this. It is completely befuddling to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you think that taking this sort of hydra-headed position puts the administration into a bit of a corner?
JAKE TAPPER: This is a White House usually known for its discipline and for being able to very successfully portray their view in stark black and white, often moral terms. But in this, he's trying to have it both ways, or his White House communication shop is trying to have it both ways, and it's, to me, incoherent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in this case, the president really can't have it both ways, in your view. And the moderate position that he's going to have to cope with, ultimately, is the one that's represented by, say, Nancy Reagan, who's anti-abortion but pro-embryonic stem cell research.
JAKE TAPPER: I think that's exactly right. I mean, this is about, for a lot of people, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, neurological problems. This is about people that you know, that too many of us know, so it becomes very personal for a lot of people when it comes to a tangible human being you know versus something in a test tube.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jake, thanks very much.
JAKE TAPPER: It was my pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jake Tapper is a senior national correspondent for ABC News. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER