Critics Cling to Gruber Comments Like 'Life Raft' With Lack of 'Bad News' on ObamaCare

Appearing on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports on Monday, Molly Ball of The Atlantic argued that the reason ObamaCare critics were seizing on the comments from Jonathan Gruber was because things were going so well for the law: "...part of the reason this controversy has become such a focal point is that there isn't a lot of other bad news about ObamaCare. The website is operating....The people who have care are pretty happy with it. Most Republicans, even the leadership, admit that they're not going to do a wholesale repeal."

Ball continued: "So I think a lot of critics are seizing on this because it's a sort of life raft for them to be maybe say, 'Maybe we can stir up outrage anew at the way this was originally done and get some more momentum for repeal,' which at this point does not look like much of a possibility."

Host Andrea Mitchell brought Ball back to reality by pointing out the latest serious Supreme Court challenge to ObamaCare that could potentially dismantle the law. Ball acknowledged:

And that is another part of why the Gruber comments are coming up....Because as someone who crafted the law, who is describing whether the subsidies in the law for people who qualify for financial assistance in purchasing health care, he has voiced a view of it that is different than what the administration is trying to say in court. So if the Supreme Court believes that, that is quite dangerous to the law. And so that's some place where this actually could matter, instead of just being sort of outrage-bait.

At the top of the exchange, Mitchell played a soundbite of President Obama trying to downplay Gruber's remarks: "The fact that some adviser who never worked on our staff expressed an opinion that I completely disagree with, in terms of the voters, is no reflection on the actual process that was run."

Turning to Ball, Mitchell pointed out: "Who is this Jonathan Gruber and how big a role did he play? Critics would say that he was the architect. That has been denied. But he was paid, as Karen Tumulty reported, $400,000. So he was not some minor consultant."

Ball agreed: "Right, to say that he was not on staff is a bit of a misdirection, when he did get quite a hefty salary for his consultation and when a lot of Democrats loved to tout his role in it when they were campaigning against Mitt Romney and pointing out that Gruber was the architect, in a lot of ways, of Romney's plan in Massachusetts."

In fact, one of those Democrats was MSNBC Last Word host Lawrence O'Donnell, who actually interviewed Gruber on October 12, 2011, touting how involved the MIT economics professor was in crafting ObamaCare: "One of Governor Romney's health care reform consultants was MIT economist Jonathan Gruber. He attended five of the 12 meetings at the Obama White House in 2009, including the meeting with the President....You were in the room with President Obama discussing health care reform."

Here is a full transcript of Mitchell's November 17 exchange with Ball:

12:41 PM ET

ANDREA MITCHELL: Health and Human Services Secretary Silvia Matthews Burwell told NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that 100,000 people submitted applications for health care on Saturday, as the second year of enrollment is beginning. But the program is facing a new controversy, comments by a former adviser that feeds into the worst claims by Republicans. Here's what the Harvard professor [sic] who helped design the bill said that is firing up critics.

JONATHAN GRUBER [OCTOBER 2013]: Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever. But basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.

MITCHELL: The President tried to minimize Jonathan Gruber's role during a weekend press conference in Australia.

BARACK OBAMA: I just heard about this. I get well-briefed before I come out here. The fact that some adviser who never worked on our staff expressed an opinion that I completely disagree with, in terms of the voters, is no reflection on the actual process that was run.

MITCHELL: Molly Ball is a political writer at The Atlantic and she joins me now from Washington. Molly, thanks very much. Good to see you.

MOLLY BALL: Hi, Andrea.

MITCHELL: Who is this Jonathan Gruber and how big a role did he play? Critics would say that he was the architect. That has been denied. But he was paid, as Karen Tumulty reported, $400,000. So he was not some minor consultant.

BALL: Right, to say that he was not on staff is a bit of a misdirection, when he did get quite a hefty salary for his consultation and when a lot of Democrats loved to tout his role in it when they were campaigning against Mitt Romney and pointing out that Gruber was the architect, in a lot of ways, of Romney's plan in Massachusetts. And therefore, they were pointing out that ObamaCare has a lot in common with quote, unquote "RomneyCare."

You know, Jonathan Gruber is a very prominent health economist. He's someone who did help design both of these plans. He was instrumental in coming up with the design of both, which relies on a market-based public-private health – universal health care system with an individual mandate. And so he is a very significant person in this policy. That being said, he's not an elected official, an elected politician. And so you can tell that, you know, his comments on it are rather impolitic in the way that he's describing the way that it was structured.

MITCHELL: And Silvia Burwell, Silvia Matthews Burwell, the HHS secretary, was asked about it by Chuck on Meet the Press.

SILVIA MATTHEWS BURWELL: I have to start with how fundamentally I disagree with his comments about the bill and about the American people. Since I've been at the department, one of the things that I've focused on is transparency, making sure that all our numbers come out, whether they're good or bad. And the other thing is that the law is based on the issues of transparency and belief in the American people and choices in the market place.

MITCHELL: Well, as Silvia Matthews was pointing out, Silvia Burwell, the website is at least working. I mean, people were getting access, they were shopping, they were comparing. So that's a good thing. They are more market oriented now. The critics, though, would say that costs are erratic, that costs have come down in some states, not in others. How is the White House going to handle the whole track record of health care as Republicans say they are going to, you know, vote to repeal, and as they face a big court challenge now in the Supreme Court?

BALL: Yeah, I mean, I think you point out something important, which is that part of the reason this controversy has become such a focal point is that there isn't a lot of other bad news about ObamaCare. The website is operating, projections are a little bit low, but there hasn't been an explosion the way there memorably was a year ago around the enrollment period. The people who have care are pretty happy with it. Most Republicans, even the leadership, admit that they're not going to do a wholesale repeal. Although they might try. That the best they can hope for is to sort of chip away at the law.

So I think a lot of critics are seizing on this because it's a sort of life raft for them to be maybe say, "Maybe we can stir up outrage anew at the way this was originally done and get some more momentum for repeal," which at this point does not look like much of a possibility.

MITCHELL: Molly, the other piece of this is the Court, the fact that the Supreme Court is again going to revisit this, and they could have a different outcome.

BALL: That is right, there is another Supreme Court challenge, the case that the Court has agreed to take up. And that hinges on a sort of technical question. And that is another part of why the Gruber comments are coming up, because he has commented directly. And there's a case where, you know, his comments are a little bit more on point. Because as someone who crafted the law, who is describing whether the subsidies in the law for people who qualify for financial assistance in purchasing health care, he has voiced a view of it that is different than what the administration is trying to say in court. So if the Supreme Court believes that, that is quite dangerous to the law. And so that's some place where this actually could matter, instead of just being sort of outrage-bait.

MITCHELL: Molly Ball, thank you so much. The update on ObamaCare.

BALL: Thanks, Andrea.

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