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Is this man really Dr. Death?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Congressman sought voluntary panels to give end-of-life treatment advice
  • Gloria Borger says that earlier, Republicans supported a similar idea
  • After Sarah Palin weighed in, they were labeled "death panels," Borger says
  • Valid ideas are twisted out of shape due to partisan politics, she says

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "Campbell Brown," "AC360°" and "State of the Union With John King," as well as during special event coverage.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressman Earl Blumenauer says he's just a regular fellow "trying to get things accomplished." As a result, the Oregon Democrat tells me, he spends much of his time "looking for ideas that can bring people together -- simple, straightforward ideas that would help people and their families."

And so he proposed the infamous "death panels."


Before they were Palinized -- and turned into those nasty death panels ready to pounce on Grandma (that "goofy stuff," as he now calls it), Blumenauer had a good idea: help people prepare for the end of life.

As he wrote in The New York Times last weekend, the proposition was simple: "I found it perverse that Medicare would pay for almost any medical procedure, yet not reimburse doctors for having a thoughtful conversation to prepare patients and families for the delicate, complex and emotionally demanding decisions surrounding the end of life."

So, when he began work on health care reform, he included a provision that would allow Medicare to cover a voluntary doctor-patient discussion (only once every five years) about things like living wills, power of attorney and end-of-life treatment.

Oh, the horror.

Talk radio quickly got wind of the proposal when ex-New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey excoriated the measure as a depraved idea that would somehow counsel people to just go ahead and die faster. The absurd notion metastasized. And since Congress is the great lagging indicator, the bizarre interpretation predictably headed toward the floor of the two Houses. Republican leaders were unwilling to balk at a juicy opportunity to fan the flames -- even though the fire was fake. They courageously took on this great cause.

Soon after, the resulting Sarah Palin Facebook post was heard 'round the world: "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.' ... Such a system is downright evil."

And none other than the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley, was seen on YouTube telling angry constituents, "We should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on Grandma."

Rep. Blumenauer may be a liberal -- he calls himself "progressive" -- but that doesn't mean he looks like a guy out to hurt your grandparents. He rides his bike to work and back to promote his environmental agenda; he's joined with Republicans to fight wasteful government spending.

But his health care story has become a profoundly cautionary tale about our political discourse -- and how it has grown increasingly degraded and infected by a combination of combustive politics, a needy media food chain and a hopelessly partisan Congress. "It's beyond depressing," he says. "... I am disappointed in ways that are hard to describe."

In some other times, Blumenauer's idea -- which, after all, is modest in scope and not exactly earth-shattering in concept -- would have been considered for what it was: an idea to help people navigate the difficulties of serious illness and, eventually, death. It's a real problem; just ask anyone who has gone through it with a family member.

Besides, it's also an idea that, in the recent past, has been considered quite acceptable, even by those who would rail against it now.

Palin, for instance. In April, 2008, the then-Alaska governor issued a state proclamation declaring "Healthcare Decisions Day," designed to "raise public awareness about the need to plan ahead for healthcare decisions related to end of life care and medical decision making whenever patients are unable to speak for themselves and encourage the specific use of advance directives to communicate these important healthcare decisions."

Seems like Palin went rogue -- on herself.

And in passing a 2003 prescription drug bill, more than 200 House members and more than 40 GOP senators voted for an almost identical provision that applied only to terminally ill elderly patients. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.

But that's ancient history. George W. Bush was president, and Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator.

"I fear it's getting worse in Washington rather than better," Blumenauer says. "We're digging ourselves into a bigger hole. ... This stuff makes me cringe." The book he wants to write, he adds, is called "It Doesn't Have to Be This Hard." But for now, at least, the Blumenauer idea remains in the House bill. Senator Rockefeller is likely to introduce his own version of the measure in the Senate.

Blumenauer first came to Congress at another polarized time -- in a special election in 1996, after the government shutdown in which then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton stared each other down. That wasn't an easy time, either. But this, he says, is worse.

Gingrich himself has been cagey about this issue, preferring instead to argue that government shouldn't be trusted with "power." Blumenauer winces at the former speaker's stance. "I served with Newt Gingrich," Blumenauer says. "I did some things with him. He's not a crazy person."

But Gingrich may want to be president, and that's where we -- the media -- come in. As Blumenauer points out in his piece, we're the echo chamber here -- and when Palin posts a comment about a "death panel," we headline it (as she knows we will) and the idea moves though the media chain with mach speed. As much as some of us try to debunk the myth, velocity often trumps veracity. "When stuff gets out of hand," Blumenauer says, "it's often hard for even the mainstream media to put a damper on it."

Besides, the agenda is still set by the politicians. And as each side continues its arguments over ideological purity, there will always be a fight to cover. On the right, the quest, he says, "comes at the expense of moderate and independent conservatives." And on the Democratic side, "we have fractioned, too, as our numbers increase."

The politicians who search for purity hail from districts that have been drawn for their advantage. And so Congress remains ideologically polarized, while the public searches for the middle ground. No wonder Congress has an abysmal 29 percent approval rating. We need structural change, says Blumenauer, "where we allow people to really select their politicians rather than allowing politicians to select their voters."

He suggests independent panels that would set up reasonably drawn --as opposed to gerrymandered -- congressional districts.

Panels? Better be careful. Someone could tweet that they're dead on arrival.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.