Will Jonathan Gruber Topple Obamacare?

Politico Magazine reports:

“Why the hell did Jonathan Gruber say that? And that? And that? And (sigh) the other thing? Those are the questions on the minds of virtually everyone in the health care world—especially the people who worked the hardest on Obamacare. Ever since the videos started popping up, one after another, America has come to know Gruber—the MIT economist who worked closely on both Obamacare and Romneycare—as the guy who thinks voters are “stupid.” And the guy who thinks Obamacare was passed because of trickery. And who says, ha-ha, voters don’t understand economics. For a while, Fox News didn’t have to bother running anything else.

Now America is about to see Gruber in a new role: congressional witness. He’s going to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to testify before Darrell Issa’s committee, where he’ll be forced to answer a ton of questions, if he can, about all those things he said. For some Republicans, Gruber is a dream witness: All they have to do is play the videos that confirm their worst suspicions about President Barack Obama’s signature health care law—especially the one where Gruber boasts that “lack of transparency [about the law] is a huge political advantage”—and watch him squirm. Better yet, they can ask him about the video that presents the biggest danger of all to the White House: the one where he undermines the Obama administration’s case in the upcoming Supreme Court lawsuit that could bring a screeching halt to subsidies for millions of Obamacare customers.

For just about everyone else who has dealt with Gruber, though—Democrats, academics, policy wonks, and the health care reporters who used to call him regularly for catchy quotes about what the latest Obamacare development really means—the videos are just head-scratchers. He’s a smart guy, everyone says, and he has been a hugely successful economist who clearly knows his health care policy. So they’re all coming back to the same question: Why the hell would he say that? Does he really believe it?
The answer, according to the people who know Gruber best, is that he has always been someone who is two seconds away from putting his foot in his mouth. Yes, he has had an astonishing rise in the world of health care policy—and it’s completely deserved, in their view, because of his groundbreaking work on predicting the cost impact of different kinds of health care legislation. Gruber is the man who developed an economic model that could basically work like a faster Congressional Budget Office—a huge help to congressional staffers as they drafted the Affordable Care Act, as well as the Massachusetts policymakers who wrote Mitt Romney’s health care reform law that preceded it.

But politically savvy? No, no, no. Gruber is a chatty, affable guy, but he’s also a man with no filter—and he knows it. It’s always when he drifts away from economics, and tries to talk about politics, that he gets into trouble, colleagues say. That’s where Gruber stepped on so many land mines in those videos—claiming there was a strategy to hide uncomfortable details from voters, as if he knew the political strategy and not just the economics, and that the “stupidity of the American voter” allowed them to get away with it.

“This is the repetition of a pattern,” said Harvard’s John McDonough, a former Ted Kennedy aide who worked on both Obamacare and the Massachusetts law. “Whenever he would get outside of the areas he knows best, it was like he was sticking a needle into his knee or something.”

McDonough recalls one meeting of the Massachusetts exchange board where, in the middle of an argument about how much low-income people can afford to pay for their health care—a debate where Gruber thought they could afford more than most of the other board members did—“he told a joke that we all thought was completely tone-deaf.” Afterwards, he says, he took Gruber aside and scolded him for the remark. Gruber’s response, according to McDonough: “Every time I talk about politics, I get into trouble.”

Most people, however, say Gruber usually isn’t insulting. He’s just blunt—to a fault. Jon Kingsdale, who served as the first executive director of the Massachusetts health insurance exchange while Gruber served on the board, puts it more diplomatically: “He’s not a Washington person who carefully crafts what he says before an audience the way you would polish it if you thought it was being recorded and distributed broadly.”

That’s a huge problem for the Obama administration, though, because Gruber has now become known as an “architect” of Obamacare—a phrase that has been used by many news organizations, including Politico, and implies that he was in the room drafting the legislation. It’s not, though, precise enough. His real contribution, according to most former congressional staffers who actually drafted the legislation, was to provide the economic models to figure out what the impact of different choices would be—like what different levels of subsidies would cost, and especially what would happen to the mix of healthy and sick people if there was no individual mandate. That’s not nothing, though. Top Democrats are running away from Gruber now—Nancy Pelosi tried to pretend she had never heard of him, and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says she never met with him. But of course they all knew him; just because he wasn’t an “architect” doesn’t mean his work wasn’t important.

What really infuriates the Obama administration and congressional Democrats at the moment, however, is what Gruber said about the central issue in the latest Obamacare lawsuit to go before the Supreme Court: whether the law actually allows subsidies for people who get their health insurance through the federal marketplace that covers 37 states, not just people who get it from state-based marketplaces. If the justices decide that it doesn’t—thanks to the way one section of the law is worded—it can gut most of the law.

Just about every staffer who worked on the legislation says, no, that’s not what we meant—of course the law allows subsidies for everyone. But that’s not what Gruber said. In yet another video, from January 2012, he appears to make the exact same argument that the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court lawsuit are making: “If you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits.” Naturally, the quote from that video is right there in the petition to the Supreme Court—which calls Gruber “one of the Act’s architects”—and it’s a good bet that it will come up in the oral arguments. Michael Carvin, the lead attorney in the case, sums it up: “Gruber is Exhibit A that any English-speaking person knows what the subsidies language says.”

Gruber, who declined to comment on the record for this article, has backed away from those remarks, telling the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn that at the time of his speech—January 2012—it wasn’t clear that the federal exchange would even be ready in time for the start of enrollment. Gruber also apologized once, on MSNBC, but otherwise has been lying low ever since the videos surfaced, watching himself so his words don’t get him into trouble again. That caution will have to end Tuesday, when he’s expected to give an opening statement and then answer questions about his comments. After that, don’t expect to see him surface again for a while—unless he gets called to another hearing.

So how did Gruber become such a sought-after speaker, and a quotable source for health care reporters, in the first place? Because, unlike many academics, Gruber is not a jargon-spouting numbers cruncher: He’s a good “explainer-in-chief,” too, always ready with a plain-English translation of some wildly complicated effect of the health care law. There were plenty of reporters who turned to him as an authority not just on health economics, but on all things Obamacare. Full disclosure: I was one of them. Whenever a new set of enrollment figures came out during the bumpy rollout, Gruber was one of the first people I would call, because he would always have a clear and reasonable take on what they meant—always from the perspective of an Obamacare supporter, but if the numbers weren’t spectacular, he would tell you that. And he could compare the developments to the same stage of the launch of Romneycare, which didn’t hurt either.