A Very Surprised Wonk Is at the Center of a New, Race-Tinged #Grubergate Story

A professor has a conversation with Jonathan Gruber. Seven months later, it becomes a scandal.

Updated on
Harold Pollack talks to Jonathan Gruber in April 2014.

Harold Pollack talks to Jonathan Gruber in April 2014.

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This story contains corrected material, published Nov. 18, 2014

Harold Pollack has spent quite a bit of time and effort trying to get people to watch him discuss health care on video. For months, the University of Chicago professor has recorded interviews with fellow wonks for HealthInsurance.org. In 2012, he recorded two short “super-PAC ads” that explained the benefits of social insurance, and the ways they can save the lives of people who find themselves unexpectedly burdened.

http://youtu.be/Z4-EGUif_N0

These videos weren't ignored, exactly—but finally, Pollack is starring in a hit. Yesterday afternoon, conservative reporter/blogger Keith Koffler “uncovered” a short clip of Pollack talking to Jonathan Gruber about Medicaid.

“One of the things that’s really striking to me is, there’s a politics of impunity towards poor people, particularly non-white poor people that—it’s almost a feature rather than a bug in the internal politics in some of these states, not to cover people under Medicaid even if it’s financially very advantageous to do so,” said Pollack in the video, as Gruber nodded.

“They’re not just not interested in covering poor people, they’re willing to sacrifice billions of dollars in injections into their economy in order to punish poor people,” said Gruber. “I mean, it really is just almost awesome in its evilness.”

To Koffler, this was prima facie offensive. “States say they have done so not to hurt poor people—or minorities, for that matter—but because they view Medicaid as a failed program,” he wrote. At the Daily Mail, this became a video of “Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber agreeing that states' opposition to massive Medicaid expansion may be race-related.” At the Daily Caller, the “awesome in its evilness” quote was the lede.

Pollack finds the whole story, and the discovery of what he calls “my ZaGruber tape,” baffling.

“I have this interview show in which I interview policy wonks, some of whom, like Avik Roy, are conservative,” he said in an interview. “It’s a little insulting to say that my videos have been uncovered. From my point of view, I’m trying to publicize them. And this particular clip was cited by Paul Krugman!”

Indeed it was. Back in April, when the video was fresh and Gruber was not yet appearing on a thousand wanted posters, Paul Krugman cited the “awesome in its evilness” line in his print New York Times column. (Krugman added that Gruber was “normally a very mild-mannered guy.”) That was the coverage Pollack was hoping for; less so the cameo in a rolling scandal.

“I must say I could do without some of the anti-semitic hate mail that’s coming in,” said Pollack. “I feel really bad for Jon Gruber, who’s the subject of this Internet gang-tackle. People are putting awful comments on healthinsurance.org, and it takes about six seconds for the 'Jew' stuff to come up. I just wish I didn't look so dorky.”

According to Pollack, none of the new spelunkers of his video have talked to him. “No one's asked if I had any evidence to make the claims,” he said. “There’s no actual reporting going on.” But when I asked if he thought race was one factor leading states to deny expansion, he stuck to his argument.

“Look, race is not the only factor in the politics of Medicaid, and my real comment was not about race,” he said. “It was about the politics of impunity. It’s considered an actively positive thing that to withhold a benefit from poor person, and the impact of these policies on poor people on states and counties is pretty devastating. That said, around 80 percent of the adults who've been shut out of the Medicaid expansion live in the Southeast, and 43 percent live in just Florida, Georgia, and Texas. It is entirely correct to say politics of race has played a role in politics in America.”

Pollack was happy to have the debate, and until this week, it was a perfectly normal thing for progressive wonks to do. Yet absent Grubergate the wonks might be talking about Obamacare's second annual enrollment period.

“The actual experience of health reform right now is pretty important for most people,” Pollack said. “Those are the stories I'd like to see uncovered. Is it changing lives? What are the experiences of people under health care reform? Every second we spend arguing about Grubergate is a second that’s wasted.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Harold Pollack discussing Medicaid and geography in the eleventh paragraph.

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