WASHINGTON -- You could pardon Rich Weinstein for gloating. These past few days, he’s enjoyed the type of journalistic high that comes with unearthing a particularly meaty scoop.
Except Weinstein is no journalist. He’s a Philadelphia-based investment adviser approaching 50 who, until a half-year ago, was unknown to the political world. A set of videos he found of Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist who played an important role in drafting the Affordable Care Act, changed all that. The videos have become rich context for a legal challenge to the law now heading to the Supreme Court, and they've made Weinstein the celebration of conservative circles.
“This is going to sound a little cocky and I don’t want it to be,” Weinstein told The Huffington Post Tuesday in one of the the media interviews he's given on his feat. “But I’m not partially responsible for finding those clips. I’m completely responsible.”
Weinstein’s story, in some respects, would be the stuff of a made-for-TV movie -- if the director is a member of the tea party and eager to dramatize the Affordable Care Act’s unraveling (those two points, admittedly, are redundant).
Weinstein, who runs his own company, and his family lost their health insurance after Obamacare forced higher standards for policies. On the exchange, the only plan with similar benefits was twice the cost of his old one. Irritated, he began looking into who put together the Affordable Care Act, searching Google with the term “ACA architects.” Days consumed with researching old videos became nights.
“Remember when the husbands used to come home at night in the '50s and '60s and grab a newspaper and read it?” said Weinstein. “Well, I’m like that with the iPad. It was a lot of time. For the past year, I put a lot of time into this.”
His break came last winter. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma, outlined a long-shot legal argument that said a direct interpretation of Affordable Care Act precluded giving subsidies to people on federally run exchanges. Weinstein had seen that argument before, albeit from a different vantage point. Months earlier, he had stumbled across video of Gruber stating that the subsidies to help low-income Americans buy insurance are reserved for state-established exchanges, if only to give states an incentive to establish an exchange
Weinstein had a smoking gun, but no one to show it to.
“I’ve got the tinfoil hat," Weinstein said, excusing the reporters who ignored his early entreaties. "People in the media must be overwhelmed with idiots like me who think they have something.”
So he took time off -- three to four months -- and watched his kids play lacrosse. Then, in July, two conservative justices on a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the subsidies for those shopping on federally run exchanges were, indeed, illegal. People were talking about the issue again.
Weinstein dropped comments about his Gruber video onto The Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog. Eventually, Ryan Radia, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, noticed and turned it into a blog post.
Dominos began to fall. Weinstein’s first video was included in the legal challenge to Obamacare. And that challenge -- King v. Burwell -- ended up making its way to the Supreme Court. “Which is crazy,” Weinstein said. “Crazy because I found it. Not crazy because it is a crazy legal case.”
This week, another of Weinstein's videos emerged. This one is of Gruber saying that a bit of budgetary deception helped Obamacare pass in Congress (“call it the stupidity of the American voter, or whatever,” said the professor). This, too, found its way into the mainstream conversation. Gruber on Tuesday went on MSNBC to apologize for his language, though he may have return. Weinstein said he has another video of a similar comment that he will soon release.
Should the Supreme Court ultimately rule against subsidies being available on federally run insurance exchanges, it would, in some ways, make the perfect ending to a conservative-inspired Horatio Alger story.
“I’m kind of a nobody,” said Weinstein. “And, I think, people who are out there, just the average person who gets hacked off about something or has an interest about something, I think I’m a perfect lesson that any one person can make a difference. Anybody. Even guy with the tinfoil hat in his mom’s basement.”
Except life and politics aren’t that simple. There is texture. Weinstein doesn’t live in his mom’s basement. He just says it for rhetorical flair. For those who would like to dismiss him as a knee-jerk partisan, he’s not that, either. He voted for Bill Clinton, he said, before he cast a ballot for Ross Perot and, most recently, Mitt Romney. Certainly, he’s no longer a “nobody” in the fight against Obamacare. Elements of the conservative movement have geared up to both promote and protect his work.
Phil Kerpen, who founded the group American Commitment and formerly was vice president for the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, helped spread the second of Weinstein’s videos. Once Kerpen found out an article was in the works, he sent a tweet suggesting The Huffington Post was “doxxing” Weinstein for attacking Gruber. The tweet came just minutes after The Huffington Post asked Weinstein whether he had used an online alias before commenting on The Volokh Conspiracy.
But the real nuance is in the history and the policy details. Gruber was an architect of Obamacare. But he wasn’t the only architect. The staffs to former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), among others, deserve their fair share of credit or blame, depending on one’s perspective.
On the issue of subsidies, the Gruber statement that Weinstein unearthed remains a gem for a reason. It’s because it’s rare (Gruber called it a “speak-o” -- like a typo). There has been one other instance unearthed of Gruber discussing tax incentives as a means of compelling a state to set up an exchange.
For defenders of the law, that’s still thin gruel compared with the widely accepted belief during and after the crafting of the bill that subsidies would be universal. (The IRS ruled this way in May 2012, five months after Gruber’s speech.)
For critics, it’s proof enough.
“I don’t think he misspoke at all. I don’t think he was taken out of context and I don’t think he misspoke,” said Weinstein.
And then there is the issue of practical outcomes. Weinstein became a digital archaeologist after the cost of his insurance went up two-fold. Should a lawsuit succeed in eliminating subsidies for those buying insurance on federally run exchanges, it would result in many people confronting similar, or worse, price hikes. It’s an outcome that Weinstein admitted weighs on him, even as he keeps scanning the Web for more Gruberisms.
“It does,” Weinstein said. “But the way you say it makes it sound like nothing else will happen. Like it is a straight line. Subsidies are taken away and the world ends. And I think that’s not fair. I think there will most certainly be a disruption. No doubt about it. I think some states will go build their own exchanges quickly. But, I think the markets would find a way to adjust.”
“It does bother me,” he added later. “I get it. I’m not an evil person. I just think people should see these videos. I just think people should know what’s going on. “