Obamacare architect says 'stupid' voters let bill pass. White House face-palm?

Video footage surfaced this week of MIT economist and chief architect of the Affordable Care Act Jonathan Gruber saying that the health law only passed because of the 'stupidity of the American voter.' How far will the repercussions reverberate?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
(From l. to r.) Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO Gerald Shea , SEIU Healthcare Chair Dennis Rivera, Harvard School of Public Health Professor Katherine Baicker, MIT Department of Economics Associate Head Jonathan Gruber and National Association of Health Underwriters CEO Janet Trautwein join a roundtable-style hearing about healthcare reform in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 11, 2009. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, footage has surfaced of Professor Gruber calling voters stupid.

Has Obama administration adviser Jonathan Gruber inadvertently doomed Obamacare? Or at least handed Republicans a weapon with which to attack the sweeping federal health care program?

He’s probably accomplished the latter more than the former. But by referring to the “stupidity of the American voter” as a reason the law was able to pass, the MIT professor and Affordable Care Act (ACA) architect has outraged Republicans, caused Democrats to face-palm, and generally lived up to the conservative stereotype of a tone-deaf academic elitist.

First, some background: Professor Gruber is an economist with lots of experience in designing public health programs. For instance, he was a key designer of the 2006 Massachusetts state health plan signed into law by then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R).

From 2009 to 2010 he served as a technical consultant to the White House as it pulled together the ACA. Reportedly, he was one of the people who convinced Obama that the bill needed to include an individual mandate – a provision requiring that almost everybody in the US get health insurance coverage of some kind.

Now let’s fast-forward to the current uproar. A few days ago the conservative group American Commitment posted a video clip of Gruber addressing a conference at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013. It shows Gruber saying “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” He added that “the stupidity of the American voter . . . was really critical for the [ACA] to pass.”

He was referring specifically to the way the bill treated the individual mandate. The ACA’s designers went to great pains to ensure that the Congressional Budget Office would not deem the individual mandate a tax. If it had, the bill would have been much easier to characterize as a welfare plan and a burden on the middle class.

“If you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in ... and sick people get money, it would not have passed,” said Gruber.

Gruber has since gone on MSNBC and said he spoke “inappropriately,” but still kind of defended his original premise. Plus, more tapes have emerged of him calling taxpayers “stupid” in other appearances at about the same time – one at Washington University in St. Louis, and another in Rhode Island.

The conservative blogosphere is pretty angry about this, as you might imagine.

“The architect of the nanny-state takeover of the health insurance industry has a pattern of public remarks about his evaluation of the American public as too stupid to take care of itself. That shouldn’t shock anyone; it’s exactly the same attitude that drives all nanny-state policies,” writes right-leaning Ed Morrissey at Hot Air.

We’ve got a few comments of our own here, of course. The first is that this proves once again that doctoral degrees do not equate to common sense. To call voters “stupid” in any public forum when you are partly responsible for a major change in US law that barely passed and remains the focus of repeal rhetoric fours year on is pretty, well, stupid.

However, Gruber’s remarks are old. That’s our second point. It’s their release that’s new, as this BBC piece discusses. It’s possible that they just came to American Commitment’s attention. It’s also possible that conservative groups have been sitting on this negative information for an opportune moment, which has arrived.

And third, this might cause real damage. Most gaffes do nothing but confirm the beliefs voters already hold, and this might well do the same. Conservatives are outraged, liberals wonder what the fuss is about a point they feel is obvious, but poorly expressed.

But it comes just as Republicans feel resurgent in the wake of their mid-term wave victories. They’ll take control of the Senate soon, giving them both chambers of Congress. Some conservatives are talking about holding hearings on the Gruber contention. At the least, these words could boost the faction of the GOP that wants to continue to pursue full repeal, as opposed to incremental Obamacare change.

Plus, there’s a new Supreme Court case that threatens the ACA structure. The nation’s high court has agreed to consider whether the bill’s wording limits insurance subsidies to states that have established their own health exchanges.

The Obama administration argues that it’s obvious the legislation intended to provide such subsidies to all states, whether it’s the state or federal government that’s running their insurance exchange marketplace. However, one of the ACA’s designers has actually argued the opposite in public, saying at a 2012 conference that “if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits.”

Ten points for Gryffindor if you guessed that Jonathan Gruber was the person in question. Given the high stakes in the latest legal challenge to Obamacare, the White House might wish that he spends the next few months avoiding academic conferences and video cameras of all kinds.

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