President Obama has been busy in recent weeks with legacy-burnishing announcements, including Tuesday's $100 million initiative to map the human brain, and some in the GOP say it's just the kind of inspiring idea their party used to be known for.
Normally an Obama skeptic, Larry Eastland, a Los Angeles-based international businessman and the former finance chairman of the Idaho GOP, said that "research and development are key to any area of advancement, and almost always leads to breakthroughs in areas not even imagined when the initial basic research was contemplated."
Mr. Eastland, a self-proclaimed limited-government proponent who has been working with other Republicans in search of new ideas for carrying out conservative goals, suggested the timeliness and cost of initiating brain-mapping made it logically a government initiative, as was the space program that began under President Eisenhower, a Republican.
"So, yes, you bet I think Obama's brain-mapping project is a good," he said.
Not everyone is convinced, with some Republicans arguing the Obama initiative is a crowd-pleaser that hides the beginnings of another government spending spree that will distort the free market's research decisions.
"Be careful," said Oregon Republican National Committee member Solomon Yue Jr. "This is a baby step to spending on government's picking the winners and losers in the medical research industry."
Mr. Yue said the Obama brain-mapping project will be "just like what President Obama did to the U.S. energy industry by picking his 'green' energy producing friends over oil and gas energy producers."
Mr. Obama on Tuesday said studying the brain could help find ways to stem Alzheimer's disease, repair stroke damage and learn about other brain functions — all creating research jobs.
While tiny compared to some of the big research ideas of the past, such as the Apollo moon program, which helped spur 375,000 jobs, Mr. Obama's idea has prompted envy in some Republicans who say he's displaying the kind of imagination for which the Republican Party was known from the late-1970s to the mid-1990s.
"President Obama is taking a very important step toward the most dramatic breakthroughs in human health," said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and chief author of the GOP's 1994 Contract With America. "Brain research is vital for autism, Alzheimer's, epilepsy, Parkinson's, traumatic brain injury, mental health and a host of other concerns."
Mr. Obama's proposal comes at a time when Republicans are grappling with their party's direction and are debating fundamental questions such as the role government should play in stimulating jobs — and how taxes should be set to pay for it.
"When the government takes up the big challenges, like space exploration and solving human maladies, it can be exciting and inspire the public," said Merrill Matthews, a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation.
"But we also have to remember that doing so requires the government to allocate the research funds. And as we saw with Solyndra and several other now-defunct companies, this administration hasn't always made good choices."
Mr. Matthews acknowledged, however, that ideas that can brand — or rebrand — a party in an exciting way, even if some of the proposals aren't practical, as many practitioners of the political arts later acknowledged about some of the GOP's thigh-slappers of the 1980s.
Mr. Gingrich was associated with many of the ideas promoted by Jack Kemp, then a congressman from upstate New York, such as the largest tax cut in U.S. history signed by President Reagan in 1981, enterprise zones to promote creation of businesses and jobs where the poor lived, school vouchers to free children from bad public schools, and helping public housing residents buy their units.
Mr. Gingrich, though considering himself a fiscal conservative, pushed spending on health and science research from the time he was a congressional backbencher.
"When I was speaker, we balanced the federal budget while doubling the budget for the National Institutes of Health," Mr. Gingrich noted. "We should have increased the National Science Foundation budget at the same time."
"One of the keys to brain research is better computation and better storage systems," Mr. Gingrich said. "President Obama deserves credit for taking an important step in the right direction."
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