Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor-turned-blogger, cannot see Russia from her house, as Tina Fey's version of her claimed in a "Saturday Night Live" skit. But she is poking this country's politics from her laptop.
I could detect her influence after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., unveiled the long-awaited House health care bill. Within hours, Palin's famously debunked charge of bureaucratic "death panels" was back, polluting the debate.
For example, when Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was asked on Fox News' "Fox and Friends" the next morning whether the House bill has any changes "with regard to the death panel," Cornyn responded, not by debunking the "death panel" canard but by linking them to another politically loaded charge, "rationing."
"The concern, of course, is with trying to contain costs; when the government runs health care, it invariably rations health care," he said. "And we don't want the government intervening in the kinds of decisions that ought to be made by families."
Ah, just when we might have thought it was safe to talk rationally about end-of-life care, here come those alleged "death panels" again, allegedly "intervening between" families and their loved ones.
In fact, the provisions in question only offer to make funds available at least every five years for seniors and their families to receive end-of-life counseling from their doctors or other health care providers if they want it, no bureaucratic intervention involved.
Fortunately, those provisions remained in the House bill Pelosi unveiled. Unfortunately, similar provisions were removed from Senate bills amid the controversy Palin helped stir up, in spite of support from doctors' groups and AARP, the lobby for seniors.
Back in August, Palin got this ball rolling with a posting on her Facebook page regarding President Obama's health care plans. "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel,' " she wrote, "so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."
I agree that it would be, if it existed. Fortunately, it does not. Palin didn't cite anything from a bill. She only cited a floor speech by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who did not quote from proposed legislation directly, either.
Both appeared to be picking up an argument made by former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, a conservative think-tank veteran who helped to kill Bill and Hillary Clinton's proposed health care reforms in the early 1990s. In August she declared in a radio interview that "Congress would make it mandatory, absolutely require, that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner."
But a lot of people, including me, read the provisions in the House bill that she cited and found that it said no such thing. Nevertheless, when I reached McCaughey by telephone, she persisted in charging that the bill would lead to bureaucrats at my door when I get older who would order me to "decide how you want to die."
In fact, similar end-of-life concepts have been a part of federal health care law with support from both parties since President George H.W. Bush was in office. But in these politically polarized times, it suddenly has become an alleged invitation to legal suicide and potential wedge between seniors and Democrats.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, at the time a lead negotiator on health care legislation, told constituents at a town hall meeting in August that he did not have problems with "things like living wills," but we "should not have a government program that determines you're going to pull the plug on Grandma." No such program is proposed, yet, "pull the plug on Grandma" became a much-repeated catchphrase.
Rather than try to educate the public on the usefulness of end-of-life counseling, senators removed the controversial provisions from their proposed legislation. Fortunately, the measure survived in House legislation. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who sponsored the provision, says the controversy actually may have helped keep the measure alive by raising public awareness.
Thank you for that, Sarah Palin. I hope the Senate gets the message.