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Obamacare consultant under fire for ‘stupidity of the American voter’ comment

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This post was updated at 2 p.m.

Economist Jonathan Gruber, one of the Obama administration's consultants on the Affordable Care Act, is under attack from conservatives for comments he made last year in which he said the "stupidity of the American voter" was a factor in passing Obamacare in 2010.

The comments were made during the panel sessions at the Annual Health Economics Conference last year. A video of the panel began circulating Monday on conservative media. (Skip to about the 20:25 mark for the relevant comments.)

"This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes," he said during a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania in October, 2013. "Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the 'stupidity of the American voter' or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

Gruber's comments were part of a broader public conversation between him and economist Mark Pauly on the economics of health care reform. Gruber was responding to a remark by Pauly about financing transparency in the law and the politics surrounding the ACA's individual mandate. The political process, he said, striking a critical tone, resulted in inefficiencies in the law which should be corrected.

"In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which explicitly said that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed," he said. "You can't do it politically, you just literally cannot do it. It's not only transparent financing but also transparent spending."

On Tuesday, conservatives tore into Gruber's 2013 remarks, saying they served as an admission of intentional deceit by the Affordable Care Act's architects.

"There you go, America. That is what the Democrat Party thinks of you," Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show Monday, according to a transcript of the show. "They think most people are incompetent and will make the wrong decisions if living a life of self-reliance."

Social media lit up with posts about the comments on Monday and Tuesday, with several lawmakers weighing in as well.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is challenging Sen. Mary Landrieu in a Senate rrunoff election next month, seized on the comments to ding his Democratic rival."The architect of ObamaCare says it passed because voters are stupid. Does Landrieu think that about #LAsen voters?" he wrote on twitter.

"The crafting of Obamacare - amazing to hear their approach," wrote Rep. Jason Chaffetz on Twitter, linking to the clip of Gruber's comments.

In the video, Gruber appeared to be speaking specifically about the political environment in 2010 and its impact on the law’s funding mechanisms. Gruber takes a critical stance on some of those outcomes, calling them "irrational."

"I wish Mark was right and we could make it all transparent but I'd rather have this law than not," Gruber said. "That involves tradeoffs that we don't prefer as economists but are realistic."

On Tuesday Morning Independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, had a tense exchange with Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade on air about the remark.

“I certainly don't endorse those kind of comments. But I can recall that debate. I wasn't in office. [I]t was a very vigorous debate,” King said when asked about Gruber’s comments. “Everybody knew that there were going to be additional taxes required to support the support for premiums under the Affordable Care Act. I don't see it as any deep, dark conspiracy. There were all kinds of -- there was long debate about it on both sides.”

“Really? He said he wasn't transparent. Senator, he said he wasn't transparent,” Kilmeade pushed back, beginning a tense exchange between himself and the senator.

“We've got eight million people that have insurance now, that didn't before. And don't lecture me about this. Because 40 years ago, I had insurance. If I hadn't had it – it caught a cancer that saved my life,” said King.

Gruber apologized for his comments on Tuesday afternoon during an on-air interview with MSNBC's Ronan Farrow.

“The comments in the video were made at an academic conference,” Gruber said. “I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

Although Gruber apologized for the language he used, Gruber said that the larger point he was trying to make centered on the political pressures that shaped the law. He added that those pressures "led to an incomplete law with some typos.”

“It would have made more sense to do Obamacare the way we did in Massachusetts, which would be to just give people money to offset the cost of their health insurance,” Gruber said. “That was politically infeasible and so instead it was done through the tax code.”