This piece will appear in the Nov. 16 print edition of The Boston Globe.
Given the ongoing frenzy over photos of Kim Kardashian’s rear end, it’s easy to understand why some people might underestimate the intelligence of the American public.
Yet Jonathan Gruber did more than underestimate it. The MIT economist and architect of the Affordable Care Act trashed his fellow citizens, by attributing the ability of Democrats to pass the law to deliberate duping, aided by the “stupidity of the American voter.”
Those videotaped comments, distributed via social media, created a new problem for an administration dealing with plenty of old ones. Thanks to Gruber, the anti-Obamacare gang suddenly has fresh fodder. As a result, the GOP’s campaign against the health care law “gained new momentum,” reported the Washington Post, and Gruber may be called to testify about remarks he retroactively explained as “off the cuff.”
Off the cuff or not, they were elitist and condescending. As Stonehill College professor and political blogger Peter Ubertaccio put it, “The American people aren’t stupid. We in the academy don’t do ourselves any favors by suggesting otherwise as we try to explain the policy making process.” Added Ubertaccio: “His comments were not only foolish and politically unhelpful to his allies,” they were wrong “because they painted with a very broad brush.”
The initial decision by much of the mainstream media to ignore the Gruber controversy played directly into right-wing theories about a liberal press. Given the media’s traditional love for video “gotchas,” this latest example “is utterly inexplicable, except as a matter of bias,” wrote Fox News commentator Howard Kurtz.
Ignoring Gruber also meant there was no quick, widely dispersed rebuttal of what he said. Instead, it was just one more political firestorm for the White House to squelch.
For those who fail to check in regularly with Fox on the latest Obama-connected outrage, here’s an update. Early in the week, Charles Krauthammer was sneering over President Obama’s gum-chewing in China. Then came scandal with real staying power: the video featuring comments made by Gruber a year ago at a policy conference.
As summarized by Thinkprogress.org, Gruber said a lack of transparency — aided by the aforementioned “stupidity of the American voter” — helped Democrats pass the health care bill into law. Gruber cited two examples of alleged duplicity: Democrats kept the Congressional Budget Office from categorizing “the individual health care mandate as a tax” and did not tell the public that young, healthy beneficiaries “would subsidize the health premiums of the sick.”
As deconstructed by Thinkprogress, those assertions are wrong. The CBO “scored the individual mandate as increasing revenue by $4 billion in 2016,” wrote author Igor Volsky. And, whether that’s called a tax or a penalty, the penalty for not getting health insurance must be reported on tax returns “as an addition to income tax liability.” Volsky also cites press reports that clearly state healthy people must subsidize sick people to make the numbers work.
On one hand, this is just one more example of the power of social media — which the news media traditionally delights in using against the right. Mitt Romney knows it well from the videotaped remarks made during the 2012 campaign, in which he writes off 47 percent of the country as dependent on government and unlikely to support him.
But the ability of the right, in this case, to turn Gruber’s comments into a full-scale assault on the president also illustrates this administration’s continuing failure to get out good news about Obamacare or much of anything else.
As the New York Times recently reported, “After a year fully in place, the Affordable Care Act has largely succeeded in delivering on President Obama’s main promises.”
Among the Times’ findings: The number of uninsured has fallen by about 25 percent and several million more are expected to sign up in coming years. Insurance for many, but not all, is affordable. The law, on the whole, “is helping the health care industry by providing new paying patients and insurance customers.”
There are problems. About 30 million people are expected to remain uninsured. Some 4 million low-income Americas “are caught in a policy gap in those states that have not expanded Medicaid,” the Times concluded. Meanwhile, Obamacare’s deficiencies have “given rise to a powerful conservative backlash.”
Gruber just fed that backlash. And that’s not so smart.