For All the ‘Grubergate’ Talk, Few Americans May Have Listened

This was published as a Wall Street Journal Think Tank column on December 9, 2014.

Jonathan Gruber, the MIT health economist who testified before a House committee on Tuesday, ignited a media firestorm this fall when it emerged that he had suggested in speeches about the Affordable Care Act that elements of  the law were designed to capitalize on the stupidity of American voters, who would have opposed it had they understood how it really worked. As a technical consultant to the Obama administration when the law was being crafted, Mr. Gruber did economic modeling of the potential impact of ACA policy options. Critics seized on Mr. Gruber’s comments as further “evidence” of the administration’s lack of transparency.

Cable news picked up the story, as did media outlets across the nation. “Grubergate” became part of a series of post-midterm attacks on the ACA, and it still simmers, with Mr. Gruber’s appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Since the repair of, the ACA narrative had been focusing more on implementation. The narrative may now be  veering back to inside-the-Beltway partisan warfare.

But it turns out that Americans have reacted to Grubergate with a shrug, at least so far. Preliminary data from this month’s Kaiser Health News Index shows that just about 2 in 10 Americans say they have been following the story closely (and just 1 in 10 say very closely), which puts Grubergate far behind major news such as the protests that followed the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury’s decision not to indict (closely followed by about 8 in 10) and the conflicts involving ISIS and other militant groups (closely followed by about 7 in 10). It may not be terribly surprising that these bigger stories garnered more interest, but the data help give context to public interest in this story. Over the past month, other ACA-related stories were followed more closely than Grubergate. About a third of the public closely followed stories about the revised figures for official ACA marketplace enrollment, and 3 in 10 closely followed stories about the ACA’s second open-enrollment period.

Americans care a lot about their health care, but it’s an open question how much they care about Washington food fights like Grubergate. It’s a good bet that the coming partisan conflict in Congress over the ACA will diminish when both parties nominate presidential candidates and turn to 2016 and a broader set of issues.

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