WHY DOES NELSON GET A FREE PASS? It's been often noted, in the ever-expanding coverage of the liberal bloggers' animosity towards Joe Lieberman (the most recent and best comments come from Hendrick Hertzberg in this week's New Yorker), that many Democratic senators, like Ben Nelson of Nebraska, have equally conservative voting records but don't incur the same wrath because they are from red states or because they are more loyal to the Democratic Party in other ways. Fair enough. But yesterday's Senate stem-cell vote has me wondering: Why, exactly, is Ben Nelson being given a free pass on his morally reprehensible vote against federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research?

Here is an issue where the public policy benefit is clear and the public policy cost is non-existent to anyone who doesn't hold rather peculiar, even mystical, views of the eternal soul of a blastocyst (as opposed to, say, a viable fetus). Public opinion polls clearly support the Democrats� position. Numerous Republicans, including both from Mississippi, voted with the Dems -- thus putting Nelson to the right of Trent Lott on this topic. Can anyone name me an issue where Joe Lieberman falls to the right of Trent Lott, Bill Frist and Thad Cochran? By being the only Democrat to defect, Nelson gives Republicans an unwarranted veneer of bi-partisanship, precisely the thing Lieberman is often accused of doing. And being only four votes short of the super-majority necessary to over-ride a presidential veto -- while it may be moot because the House isn't anywhere close to that -- I think it's fair to say that every vote counts on this bill.

I also think it's obvious that if the disability rights community wielded the same influence held by organizations representing other disadvantaged groups within the Democratic caucus, Nelson would be catching a lot more heat for this. The moderate-DLC line is that Lieberman shouldn't be held to an Iraq litmus test, nor Bob Casey to an abortion one, and so I presume they'd say Nelson shouldn't be held to one on stem cells. I'm not so sure. Some issues are so obvious that it's fair to say anyone who doesn't agree with the overwhelming majority of progressives isn't a progressive at all. Iraq and abortion don't fall into that category because the unpopular positions among Dems on those issues are still fundamentally legitimate and worth respecting. But the argument against stem cell research is not in my view -- I think opposing stem cell research is just irrational and mean-spirited. The same argument Matt made with regard to Lieberman could be applied to Nelson as well: whether Nelson did this out of sincere, wrong-headed conviction or political cowardice is simply irrelevant.

--Ben Adler

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