On a conference call with reporters this week, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.) repeated what has become the most popular conservative canard about President Obama's health care agenda. The government, Cornyn ominously warned, would end up deciding the "cost and the value of one's life, rather than leaving those decisions in the hands of the family." A "firewall" needed to be put in place to prevent this from happening.
Four and a half years ago, the Texas Republican wasn't heeding any firewalls. He was one of the lead sponsors of unprecedented government intervention to keep the permanently brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive.
"Congress has a right and a responsibility to investigate this case and explore possible means to protect the defenseless such as Terri Schiavo and others, including those in Texas who are in similar situations," Cornyn said at the time.
The Schiavo case became an embarrassment for the Republican Party and a crucial turning point in the 2006 election. Conservative lawmakers later acknowledged mistakes in their handling of the entire episode, but at the time they defended their actions by framing them as a desire to protect both life and due process.
Some of the same conservative figures taking potshots at Democrats for wanting to fund voluntary discussions about end-of-life decisions between doctors and their patients were leading the charge four years ago to contravene the decision by Schiavo's husband and guardian to remove the feeding tubes from his wife after she had spent 15 years in a vegetative state.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who this week declared that Obama was trying to set up a situation where the government would decided whether to pull the plug on grandma, missed the vote to give the government control over Schiavo's fate. But he told reporters that he backed the measure.
"I support the effort to protect Terri Schiavo," he said. "It's the first case of its kind, a chance to choose life over death. I gave the option to life."
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has also been highly critical of Obama's health care agenda, told constituents in an online forum that he supported the government's intervention into Schiavo's life. "Without knowing Terri Schiavo's wishes," he wrote, "and with so many ambiguities and distortions surrounding the situation, it was right for Congress to err on the side of life."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered much the same explanation as Boehner. "What Congress did, it seems to me, was not all that extraordinary," he told Fox News at the time. "What we simply did was grant to the courts an opportunity to review the case, something they do in habeas corpus petitions in death penalty cases all the time. It's not unusual for a death decision. And in effect, that's what's happening here."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has publicly backed claims that Obama is setting up "death panels," predicted that people would ultimately look back at what the government did on the Schiavo matter "and realize that allowing a family to appeal in a situation like this is a totally reasonable part of the American tradition."
Gingrich, of course, was proven wrong. Polling both during and after that episode indicated widespread public distaste with Congress' efforts to keep Schiavo alive. Prominent Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio produced several studies at the time that found 60 to 80 percent of Americans were opposed to the intervention. Republicans were given a preponderance of the blame.
All of which may currently be contributing to how hard these very same lawmakers are now attacking Democrats and the president for promoting voluntary end-of-life consultations. In a radio interview with the Washington Times in late July, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele accused Obama of promoting a level of government involvement in the health care system that was far more outrageous than what occurred with Schiavo.
"That's the mood the administration is beginning to take," Steele said. "In this case, it is the government controlling the means of providing health care to the American people. It is inserting itself into the very fabric of the decisions that you make, have to make every single day. It'll make the Terry Schiavo case look like a walk in the park."