Romneycare/Obamacare architect and MIT Economics Professor Jonathan Gruber is back in the right-wing crosshairs over another recently-surfaced comment he made about the relative intelligence of the American voter, this time at a Washington University talk in St. Louis on October 4, 2013. Just yesterday morning, Gruber was apologizing for remarks he made in 2012 about the “stupidity of the American voter,” when video surfaced of Gruber explaining how the Affordable Care Act’s “Cadillac Tax” got passed. Instead of taxing individual employees’ health plans, a staffer for then-Senator John Kerry suggested taxing the companies instead:
“We said ‘Well, that’s pretty much the same thing, why does it matter?’ He said, ‘You’ll see!’ And they proposed it, and that passed, because the American voter is too stupid to understand the difference.”
That quote is actually part of a longer story which, if smart guys being dicks about being smart is you thing, is worth checking out. Personally, I have no problem with the notion that the average American voter is not as smart as an MIT professor, but like “racist” and “immigration reform,” the word “stupid” is a red cape for right-wingers. In the larger context, Gruber smugly talks about how the groups he usually talks to aren’t “as intelligent” as this college crowd, and recounts a conversation with one such dullard:
“So, we should get rid of this, then. Someone would raise their hand and say ‘You mean you want to tax my health insurance?’ I’d say no, no, no, you don’t understand, I want to equalize the tax burden between health insurance and wages, and they’d say ‘You mean you want to tax my health insurance?’ And I just couldn’t get through.”
It’s not a nice thing to say, or a nice way to say it, but Gruber is right, most people are too stupid to understand health care reform, including, as it turns out, Jonathan Gruber. It’s an incredibly complex subject, which is part of what has made the journalism around it so very terrible. For every willful distortion of the truth, there were very smart, capable reporters who didn’t know enough about the subject to know that they were reporting falsehoods about the law’s effect on the people they were reporting on. Their subjects knew even less.
Gruber’s point is also borne out by consistent polling on Obamacare’s provisions, which are almost all hugely popular, and which benefit all Americans, but which haven’t translated into popularity for the law itself. Almost every key provision polls somewhere between 57%-88% approval. All except one: the individual mandate. Unfortunately, that’s the one provision that makes all of the others possible. This is probably consistent with the polling you’d get on a five-course meal, for which paying the check would be the least popular part.
Even so, calling people stupid isn’t nice, and isn’t particularly smart, either. If right-wingers want to freak out about that, that’s their business, though they ought to also ask themselves why Frank Luntz exists. What I find telling is how little (i.e., none) outrage there is over another kind of nasty thing Gruber said about Americans, at that same talk:
“Let me tell you a little dirty secret about American politics, if I may? Americansdon’t really care about the uninsured. It’s not a voting issue.”
That’s a terrible thing to say, but depending on your definition of “really cares,” Gruber is essentially correct. Americans do have a favorable attitude toward things like the Medicaid expansion, but it’s a verifiable fact that this isn’t a “voting issue” for most Americans. Even in 2008, when health care was a major campaign issue, only 9% of voters named it as the most important issue.
What’s telling is that no one on the right is outraged by Gruber’s statement because not caring about the uninsured is a feature, not a bug, for conservatives. These are people who will cheer for letting an uninsured person die, because if you don’t have insurance, it’s because you didn’t take personal responsibility, unless you’re a Republican, in which case it’s because regulations killed your job.