For political charges to stick, they've got to correspond to some discernible reality. They have to track with what an average voter experiences -- or believes -- is within the realm of the possible. During the presidential campaign, voters rejected John McCain's contention that President Obama was a radical socialist who palled around with terrorists because the Obama voters knew from the campaign and the primary did not seem like a rabble-rousing Eugene Debs.
Over the weekend, Gov. Sarah Palin, former Speaker Newt Gingrich
and others seized on a few lines from one of the major health care
bills to try and encapsulate the Democratic Party's entire approach to
health care. As Palin wrote on her Facebook page
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" so
his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their
"level of productivity in society.
are several immediate problems with this, not the least of which is
Palin's chosen format. Facebook is not generally a place where serious
political charges are lobbed. And Palin, having abdicated her elected
executive position a few weeks ago, lacks the automatic standing to be
a valued participant in the health care debate. If you're Sarah Palin,
and you face an American public that is skeptical about your
intellectual bona fides, you've got to choose your spots more
carefully. Reading the post, it's hard to see what Palin actually
meant. Her political spokesperson later confirmed that Palin was
referring to the principle of "community standards," which she linked
to a New York Post piece about Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a noted cancer
physician an a presidential adviser on health care economics and the
brother of the Chief of Staff. (Emanuel is also an occasional
contributor to the Atlantic.)
in a few journal articles and an Atlantic feature, has written about
the enormously complex emotional, social and economic decisions that
individuals and the health care system confront whenever someone begins
to die from a terminal illness. Emanuel's thesis adviser at Harvard was
Prof. Michael Sandel, a noted communitarian who has argued that our
political debates bracket gut-level values to our detriment. Emanuel writes
the tradition of a communaritan who believes that procedural liberalism
-- the reigning philosophy of government today -- does not allow for
priorities among health care services because it "cannot appeal to a
conception of the good." Emanuel writes: "But without appealing to a
conception of the good, it is argued, we can never establish priorities
among health care services and define basic medical services." Emanuel
sketches out a "civic Republicanism" telos -- that is -- our health
care decisions as a society should be yoked to a system that
"promote[s] the continuation of the polity-those that ensure healthy
future generations, ensure development of practical reasoning skills,
and ensure full and active participation by citizens in public
deliberations-are to be socially guaranteed as basic." He notes that
such a system would deny "services provided to individuals who are
irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens."
is setting up a contrast: our health care system today treats everyone
equally -- as if they ought to have equal access to every possible
procedure or treatment. To most of us, the status quo seems intuitively
right. Everyone is equal -- equal under God -- Emanuel doesn't say
this, but he might as well -- and therefore it would be evil to make
distinctions. What Emanuel is arguing, here, is that this liberalism
substitutes one goal -- equality -- for another -- a healthy society --
and that substitution may be responsible for the limited choices that
policy-makers confront. He also points out a trade-off between
providing a basic level of coverage for all and providing the
opportunity for anyone with some coverage to get every possible
benefit, treatment and procedure.
Palin and Newt Gingrich aren't debating the moral philosophy of John
Rawls, whose formulations Emanuel borrows. They're taking Emanuel's
academic point about health care values, assigning it to Emanuel as if
Emanuel were advocating for something he isn't, then jumping over the
entire health care colossus, and they assign this distorted belief
to Barack Obama by implying an argument that actually disproves the
linkage they are trying to make.
On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Gingrich, who hasn't always defended Palin, decided to take the bait
Didn't matter that the "death panel" about which Palin spoke wasn't in
the health care bill -- (not even in any of the four or five bills that
Gingrich subsequently referenced.) Didn't matter that the provision in
question simply allows the government to pay for end-of-life and
Hospice discussions with your doctor -- something that virtually
everyone with Medicare wants because they often can't pay for lawyers
to advise them about the process, specific language
about which that was written by a pro-life Republican.
"I think people are very concerned when you start talking about cost control," Gingrich said.
"You're asking us to believe that government can be trusted. Communal standards historically is a very dangerous concept."
is conflating Palin's tertiary fear about Emanuel with the provision in
the health care bills that would establish panels of experts to evaluate procedures
for their effectiveness. (As Harold Pollack notes, end of life care would not be
a priority for these panels anyway.)
alleged that Emanuel is an advocate of euthanasia and wants doctors to
bring cost-benefit decisions into their end-of-life counseling
sessions." Actually, Emanuel's research shows the opposite.
say a doctor begins to counsel a patient with terminal pancreatic
cancer. Right now, the health care system incentivizes doctors to keep
that patient in a hospital and on chemotherapy until the day she dies.
Late-stage pancreatic cancer is almost always fatal, and the chances
that the patient will go into remission are very slim. The doctor has
no incentive to tell the patient that hospice care may well be a better
alternative. The last few months of life would be much more
comfortable. Hospice care costs more than hospital care in most
circumstances, Emanuel found -- and so the end-of-life counseling that
a doctor provides has little to do with saving money. If there is any
cost-benefit analysis in this scenario, it's simply that the patient
may value comfort at the end of her life over aggressive, painful
treatments that aren't likely to work (and might actually hasten death
if they don't).
Even if you're familiar with the facts -- Emanuel opposes
he favors giving families more information about end of care decisions
(because families often want this information and don't know enough
about the future to ask about it), he understands the difficulty in
convincing people to think about the costs and benefits of treating
their dying loved one at the end of their life, and he is not writing
the health care bill -- Gingrich's follow-on to Palin's attack is
simply an exercise in unreality.
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is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic