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Gruber’s Defenders Were Wrong (So Why Haven’t They Admitted It?)

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Two weeks ago the Center for American Progress made a concerted effort to claim that Jonathan Gruber was wrong in some of his embarrassing statements caught on video. But it turned out it was CAP that had it wrong, not that you’d know it from looking at their uncorrected pieces.

On Novermber 13th the President of CAP, Neera Tanden wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal titled “Getting to the Bottom of ‘Grubergate’.” She made two points, the second of which was that Gruber’s statements about the CBO killing Obamacare were simply wrong:

Mr. Gruber has also said that the Affordable Care Act was written “in a tortured way” to make sure the CBO did not score the individual mandate as a tax. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation scored the individual mandate as increasing revenue from penalty payments. Whether they viewed the mandate as a “tax” had no impact on their analysis; the economic effect is the same regardless of the name. That is precisely why Chief Justice John Roberts found in favor of the individual mandate when it came before the Supreme Court in 2012.

Tanden’s claim was echoed the same day in a piece by Igor Volsky at Think Progress. Volsky claimed that Gruber’s statement was “demonstrably” false. The goal of these coordinated claims was obvious. If Gruber was wrong on the facts then what he was saying about stupid American voters would have less credibility.

But as I pointed out the same day, it wasn’t Gruber who was wrong it was the CAP writers. When Gruber said “If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies,” he was not speaking about penalties for those who refuse to buy insurance. He was talking about a more fundamental decision CBO made in early 2009. That decision was whether or not to treat all of Obamacare as economic activity brought about by the mandate. The CBO decided it would not treat the mandate that way, thus limiting the apparent cost of the bill.

To my surprise, I wasn’t alone in reaching this conclusion about what Gruber meant. Neil Irwin at the NY Times said the same thing the next day. I pointed this out to Neera Tanden who first said I was wrong then admitted she really didn’t know.

Unfortunately for Tanden and Volsky, not many people agree with their interpretation. The Wall Street Journal reached the same conclusion as the NY Times and a few days later the Washington Post fact-checker looked specifically at the issue of what Gruber had meant. Here is what he concluded:

We realize this is a complex topic, and it would be so much easier toassume that Gruber was discussing the political fiction that the mandatepenalty was not a tax. But in context, it’s clear that Gruber was nottalking about that. If all health-insurance premiums had been deemed adid.

It’s not often that the NY Times, the Washington Post and Breitbart News are all in agreement but this is one of those times. And yet, if you look at the pieces written by Tanden and Volsky you’d have no idea there was even a question about the veracity of their claims. No corrections were made despite the broad agreement the CAP authors were misinterpreting Gruber’s words.

All of this could become an issue again if Gruber keeps his promise to testify before Congress next week. Only one interpretation of Gruber’s comments makes sense, but Gruber might feel pressured to do what he has done before and claim this was another speak-o. If he does, his friends at CAP will be grateful and it would help them and the White House dismiss his statements about stupid voters as a mistake. It should go without saying that anything Gruber says in his own defense must be taken with several grains of salt.


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