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Halbig Shows How Leftist Wonks Just Aren’t Very Good At Their Jobs

If it was “unimaginable” to you that 36 states would do exactly as they’ve done, maybe you should leave the wonkery to people who know what they’re doing.


Another day, another liberal wonkblogger contradicting the government’s position in the Halbig case. First we had Jonathan Gruber demonstrating that the plaintiff’s case in Halbig was quite plausible. Then we had Jonathan Gruber demonstrating that the plaintiff’s case in Halbig was quite plausible…again. Then we had Greg Sargent unwittingly demonstrating that the plaintiff’s case in Halbig wasn’t only plausible, but quite likely.

Today, thanks to Phil Kerpen of American Commitment, we have Jonathan Cohn, one of the Left’s foremost experts on Obamacare, contradicting himself and demonstrating that the plaintiff’s case in Halbig was plausible:



Remember that the plaintiffs in Halbig argued that the text of the law constraining subsidies to state-based health exchanges was intentional given that the government wanted to incentivize states to establish state-based health exchanges.

Cohn’s remarks are important because he is considered to be an expert on health care policy. In 2007, the New York Times called him “one of the best health-care writers out there. The Washington Post described him as “one of the leading experts on health care policy.” And what did Cohn say in 2010, shortly before Obamacare became law, about the prospect of states not setting up individual health care exchanges? How did he describe his pre-enactment view of the exchange-based system?

“I find it hard to believe a state would actually do that.” “I made the point that ‘I can’t possibly imagine a state opting out of an insurance exchange, given it’s a good deal for the state.'”

To be clear: one of the “leading experts on health care policy” for the Left could not possibly imagine that 36 states would do exactly as 36 states have done. One of the “best health care writers out there” found it hard to believe that 36 states would act exactly as they have acted.

At one point during his January 2010 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Cohn even went so far as to declare that the ability of a state to opt out would never make it into law. As a result, Cohn admitted that he didn’t even really bother paying attention to that provision:

GROSS: Now, there’s also an option, isn’t there, is a Senate bill, to opt out of the exchange?

Mr. COHN: There is some kind of opt out, and I’ll be honest. This is not something I’ve looked into that closely because I don’t think it’s going to end up in the bill.

For a movement that so prides itself on being the vanguard of wonky wonkery on wonkiness, Cohn’s admissions are rather stunning. It’s one thing to believe event X is more likely than event Y, but to write off event Y as unimaginable? To ignore entirely a specific provision of law that says event Y is eminently possible? That’s a special kind of wonkery right there.

“But his 2010 comments didn’t really address the subsidy issue that was central to Halbig,” you might say, “so what’s your point?” That’s a fair question, and I don’t mean to pick on Cohn, who has regularly contributed very helpful information for many years now.

His remarks are important, though, because they reveal the massive gap between what self-styled progressives wonks think they know and what they actually know. That gap becomes increasingly relevant when these same wonks claim that their unparalleled coverage of the bill in 2009 and 2010 magically grants them intimate knowledge of not just the bill’s text, but also the innermost thoughts of the bill’s authors and supporters. Here are just a few examples of this adorable argument:






Klein’s claim is my favorite, because he never for a moment considers that maybe he should’ve asked different questions and interviewed different people: people like Michael Cannon, one of the architects of the Halbig suit. Cannon repeatedly reached out to Klein to educate him on the suit and its underlying logic, but Klein wasn’t interested:


The Vox explainer on selection bias will surely be a doozy.

At some point, it might be worth it for the likes of Beutler, Sargent, and Klein to consider the possibility that maybe they’re just not very good at explaining the news. Now, they’re pretty great at explaining the news that they want to hear. But explaining the actual news does not really appear to be their forte.

You see, “we covered it and know everything about it and how it works and all” only works as an argument when you can actually demonstrate that you do actually know what you’re talking about. When you write a breathless column, as Ezra Klein did in 2009, urging people to not read legislation because reading legislation is hard, don’t be surprised when people don’t take your interpretation of that bill you didn’t read as gospel:

This is why it’s silly to demand that members of Congress “read the bill.” They can’t understand the bill. Nor, incidentally, can the public.

When you admit that you didn’t pay attention to a rather major provision because you didn’t think it was important, don’t be surprised when people decide to take your opinions on that provision with a grain of salt. When you respond to questions about whether practicing attorneys think your legal arguments are sound by saying “Haven’t asked; don’t care,” don’t be surprised when people assume that your crippling intellectual incuriousity might inhibit your ability to opine on complicated matters of law.


At some point, rather than constantly assuming that they know everything there is to know about everything worth knowing, it would be nice if just a few members of the esteemed Juicebox crowd acknowledged that maybe their close-mindedness was affecting their collective ability to accurately capture and report on American politics. It would be nice if they took the time to interview people like Michael Cannon, rather than just cranking up the volume in their own echo chamber.

That type of honest behavior would definitely be nice. But I can’t possibly imagine it.