The Republican-led House Committee on Oversight took obvious pleasure in raking MIT economist Jonathan Gruber over the coals recently about foolish and uninformed comments he made regarding the politics of health reform.
Gruber was deeply apologetic, acknowledging that he is not an expert on politics and that his off-hand comments about the politics of health reform were uninformed and, at times, offensive. In public appearances, he called American voters “stupid” and suggested that politicians had deliberately obscured aspects of the Affordable Care Act.
But as Gruber noted in his testimony, he was never an insider on the politics of the healthcare proposal. Like many people, he sometimes claimed to know more than he really did about fields far from his expertise.
But here is the important thing to know about Gruber: He is not the “architect” of the Affordable Care Act. Yes, he served as a technical expert, modeling health-insurance benefits and subsidies, for the 2006 Massachusetts health reforms signed into law by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, then the state’s governor. And yes, he was consulted frequently on similar issues when Romneycare became the model for Obamacare. But the architects who fashioned the Affordable Care Act were elected representatives and senators serving in Congress in 2009 and 2010, along with the president of the United States.
In November 2008, 63 percent of American voters went to the polls — in the highest voter turnout in decades (and far above the puny 36 percent of voters who turned out in 2014). By huge margins, that high tide of voters elected a Democratic-majority Congress, which then spent more than 14 months in public debates about the new health-reform law. During the presidential primaries and in the general election President Obama had made his intention to reform healthcare clear, and he was handily elected. Democrats then fashioned an effective health reform that realized a decades-long dream.
In 2008, massive problems in the health insurance market were getting worse, and huge healthcare bills were a leading cause of bankruptcy. The Affordable Care Act reforms were designed to make health insurance secure for almost all Americans. Every single provision that Gruber claims was obscured was, in fact, very publicly debated at length, not just in Washington, but in town halls around the nation. The taxes and subsidies that helped fund this major expansion of health insurance coverage were well known to supporters and opponents alike.
So what is the true significance of the “Grubergate” brouhaha? First, there’s a lesson for would-be experts everywhere: Gruber’s sin — a serious one — was the expression of condescension toward his fellow citizens, voters and the hundreds of elected officials who actually shaped and shepherded landmark health-reform legislation. Experts in a democracy should know their place: They are valuable advisers, but they are not the principal players. No expert, no matter how distinguished, should ever express contempt for fellow citizens.
Grubergate also reminds us, once again, of the sad state of political debate in America today. The Gruber video snippets were dug up by opposition researchers who pushed them to cable-TV producers, who would rather smear the Affordable Care Act than report on how the law has provided secure, affordable coverage to more than 15 million Americans and significantly reduced the rate of increase in premiums and healthcare costs.
I met Jonathan Gruber for the first time last winter, when he and I were invited to a Washington, D.C., session on possible ways to improve health reform. I found him likable, and it was obvious how deeply he cared about getting affordable health insurance to all Americans. Meeting him increased my respect for him as an expert on health policy, and I am glad he is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network, which I lead.
But I would never turn to Gruber for political analysis, nor do I think he’ll be offering any more of it soon. As he said in his testimony: “It is never appropriate to try to make oneself seem more important or smarter by demeaning others. I know better … and I am sorry.”
Theda Skocpol is a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and director of the Scholars Strategy Network.