The President of the United States has finally responded to a set of controversial remarks made by an academic paid to help get Obamacare through Congress. That consultant is Jonathan Gruber, he's an MIT economist who advised on the construction of Romneycare, the Obamacare precursor in Massachusetts, and lent his expertise to the creation of the Affordable Care Act. In a series of videos unearthed by conservatives and now being played on almost constant loop on Fox News, Gruber is seen describing key parts of the legislation essentially as a grand bait-and-switch designed to deceive American citizens.
The constant drumbeat of anti-Obamacare coverage on Fox, combined with weeks of negative ads in the midterms, have made their mark on public opinion: a new Gallup poll showing approval of the Affordable Care Act at a record low of only 37 percent. Speaking to reporters from Australia, where he's participating in the G-20 summit, President Obama responded for the first time to the firestorm surrounding Gruber's comments. It may strike you as strange that in 2014, with open enrollment on the healthcare exchanges having just started for a second year, the president is being forced to address a controversy related to comments that pertain to the construction of the Affordable Care Act way back in the early days of his first term. But it is no fluke because it is the legislative process that produced the law in the first place that is at the heart of what many conservatives now see as their last, best hope to kill the Affordable Care Act once and for all. It's a Supreme Court case called King v. Burwell and it alleges that, according to a single phrase in the nearly one-thousand-page text of the law, lawmakers didn't intend for insurance tax credits to be available in the states that rely on the the federal healthcare exchange. That's 36 states right now. Significantly, the Supreme Court did not have to take up this question at all. It was already scheduled for review by a lower court. But instead of allowing the judicial process to play out, the high court did something unusual: they reached down into the lower court to pull this case into their own jurisdiction, against the expectations of many legal observers. Like the controversy over Jonathan Gruber, King vs. Burwell is all about the original mindset and intent of the people who wrote the law. It's about using that mindset to destroy the law's legitimacy. And ultimately, if the law's opponents get their way, to take health insurance away from the more than 10 million people newly insured under the Affordable Care Act. If the Supreme Court agrees with the law's opponents, it could precipitate a chain of events that causes the entire structure of the entire law to come crashing down in an ugly implosion. It is no accident that right now, in 2014, conservatives are gleefully debating a legislative process that took place almost five years ago in broad day light. Because what is their alternative? Think about this. They could - instead - be attacking the existing Affordable Care Act, which is no longer just a thousand-page bill or some kind of looming future abstraction, but rather the actual law of the land. They could, for instance, be railing against a federal exchange website that's a complete and utter mess. That is, after all, what they did a year ago when the original debut of healthcare.gov turned into a debacle.
But they can't do that now, because when open enrollment began this weekend, the website was able to handle a million visitors and 100,000 applications. A far cry from the disaster of a year ago, and in fact enough success story to make the website a non-story. Conservatives could be attacking the Affordable Care Act for failing to accomplish one of its main goals: covering the uninsured. But they can't do that, because the number of Americans without health insurance has gone down about 25% in the past year. And almost six in ten of the people buying plans through the exchanges were previously uninsured.They could be attacking the law for scaring insurance companies away from the healthcare market, but they can't do that, because more insurers are offering more plans on the federal exchange this year than they did last year. They could attack Obamacare for costing the taxpayers tens of billions of dollars more than lawmakers anticipated, but they can't do that, because the overall price tag is coming in at about 104 billion dollars less than the Congressional Budget Office previously projected. Of course they could attack the law for driving up healthcare inflation and accelerating the increase in how much we as a country spend collectively on healthcare but they can't do that, because healthcare inflation has dropped to the lowest rate in a decade. They could attack it based on the fact that premiums are skyrocketing across the board, and everyone buying insurance on the Obamacare exchanges will now be paying through the nose. But they can't do that, because while some premiums are going up, it's on par with the increases under employer-based insurance, and on average, Obamacare premiums are lower than anticipated. They could go after the law based on outcry from the angry, frustrated and disappointed people who have actually bought insurance through the Obamacare exchanges, but of course they can't do that, because the latest polling shows that seven out of ten people enrolled in Obamacare are happy with their coverage. In fact, if you take all those different pieces of the law and put them together, they add up to a remarkable and improbable legislative success story, possibly one of the greatest of our time. It's a legislative success story about as likely as landing a tiny rover on a moving comet, hurtling through space, hundreds of millions of miles away from earth.And it's all the more remarkable because the criticism of the legislative process that brought us Obamacare is not off base: it was a messy and often an ugly process. I covered the creation of the Affordable Care Act, back when Jonathan Gruber was consulting on Capitol Hill and I thought I was witnessing the construction of a Rube Goldberg machine to deliver healthcare that, in order to avoid political pitfalls, had grown so baroque, so impenetrable and so complex, that when the time came to turn the thing on, it would all collapse before everyone's eyes. And a year ago, when the healthcare exchanges did turn on for the first time -- and it initially looked like they might implode -- I was worried. Maybe the whole thing was too complex, maybe the critics were right, and maybe, as Charles Krauthammer said, it showed that liberalism doesn't work. I will say this to you Charles: if two months of website failure showed that liberalism didn't work, then, a year later, all the evidence suggests the opposite, that Liberalism does in fact work. Because what has happened in the last year is that more people got access to healthcare that's affordable and decent. They have been relieved of the uncertainty and cruelty of a system that, in the richest country on earth, throws people to the wolves to fend for themselves when they suddenly get cancer and don't have the fortune of being employed. And now, armed with some tapes of an MIT professor saying some stupid things and a few potentially sympathetic Supreme Court justices, conservatives are looking to destroy all of it. To blow it all up and grind it into dust and raze the Affordable Care Act to the ground, based on no principle other than their implacable ideological opposition to the project of providing health insurance partially through the government. To metaphorically show up at the doors of millions of Americans and rip their health insurance up in front of them, and return them to the tyranny of fear under which they lived before the act's passage.
That's where we stand, and those are the stakes.