the national interest

Conservatives Now Completely Losing It Over Grubergate

Photo: Dominick Reuter/Corbis

Jonathan Gruber’s blunt, arrogant comments about the design of Obamacare began as a promising opportunity for Republican demagoguery and have become the touchstone for all varieties of unhinged thinking. What Gruber was explaining was how the law used framing devices to present its necessary trade-offs in a more attractive fashion. Conservatives have decided that Gruber was confessing to a sinister plan to conceal its actual components from the public, which is absurd.

Gruber was the primary author of Obamacare in the sense that he designed Romneycare, and Obama copied Romneycare. As I argued, Gruber was describing the policy mechanisms in the law as lacking transparency. Specifically, he was describing its requirement that insurance companies not discriminate against customers with a preexisting condition, which transfers resources from the healthy to the sick, but does so through regulations rather than through direct taxes and spending. That is the sense in which it is not “transparent.” That is to say, it is not transparent in the same sense that Romneycare was not transparent — or, for that matter, the way the trade-offs of nearly any major legislation are not transparent — rather than through some uniquely sinister process that conservatives imagine to be the conspiracy that gave birth to Obamacare.

Conservatives refuse to accept this interpretation. They have instead concluded that, by lack of transparency, Gruber was confessing to some kind of secret means of smuggling Obamacare into law without its actual components being known. That belief, as Jonathan Cohn explains in a typically thoughtful fashion, is not merely wrong but bizarre and completely detached from reality.

For an example of the kind of unhinged anger that is attaching itself to Gruber, consider conservative columnist Sean Davis of the Federalist. Davis is furious that I am, allegedly, denying Gruber’s role as author of Obamacare:

And therein lies the latest mission for Obamacare’s dimwitted online propagandists: let’s just tell everyone Gruber wasn’t the law’s architect! Yeah, that’s the ticket. Enter Jonathan Chait:

I can never quite tell if Chait himself is dumb as paste, or if he merely assumes that his readership is dumb as paste, which would just make him one of the Internet’s most intellectually deceitful writers, rather that one of its dumbest.

There are two questions here. The first is, what was Gruber’s role in the design of Obamacare? Davis cites a 2012 New York Times article describing Gruber’s role, which reports that “[a]fter Mr. Gruber helped the administration put together the basic principles of the proposal, the White House lent him to Capitol Hill to help Congressional staff members draft the specifics of the legislation.

Aha! Gruber actually did direct the specific details of the law! Unless you read the very next sentence of the article Davis quotes: “This assignment primarily involved asking his graduate student researchers to tweak his model’s software code.”

In other words, the article confirms exactly what I’ve been saying all along. Gruber was influential in designing Romneycare and helping persuade Democrats to copy it. He did not play a direct role in writing Obamacare. As the Times notes, he spent the entire time working from home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You cannot write a major law from your living room.

In my alleged capacity as dimwitted Obama propagandist, according to Davis, my latest scheme is to “just tell everyone Gruber wasn’t the law’s architect.” If my plan was to deny Gruber’s role as the primary author of Obamacare, you need to read my column, or at least just skim the headline:

Conservatives Now Losing It Over Grubergate