Politics & Policy

What Shirtgate and Grubergate Have to Do with Each Other

Taylor shows us what happens when insiders think they’re speaking only to members of their own tribe.

Gruber and Taylor — Jonathan and Matt. They’re blood brothers, in their way, joined by their place in the current news cycle. Joined by more than that, in fact, for they both made the same mistake. They both thoughtlessly assumed that behaviors that were risk-free in their small social groups would be risk-free in the larger culture. They both mistook the manners of the tribe for the manners of the nation.

Looked at from a different angle, of course, they couldn’t be more different. Matt Taylor is the British rocket scientist who led the team that landed the Rosetta probe on a comet last week. Jonathan Gruber is the MIT economist who received almost $400,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services for his help in shaping the Obamacare bill in 2009 (plus another $5.5 million from the various state and federal agencies that hired him to help implement Obamacare).

Taylor got in trouble for the shirt he wore to his press interviews about the comet landing — a Hawaiian-style tourist’s shirt decorated with comic-book-style pictures of large-breasted, scantily clad women. Gruber has bubbled back up into the news over the past few weeks as videos of his comments about Obamacare have become available — comments that include his calling American voters stupid, his admission that the Obamacare bill was deliberately written to be confusing, and his description of his work on Massachusetts’s earlier health-care bill as “smart people” figuring out how to “rip off” the federal government for $400 million.

The politics of the two men’s newsworthiness has played out differently, as well. The attack on Taylor, for example, came from the left. It began when a writer for The Atlantic named Rose Eveleth grumbled that his shirt shows why women are driven away from science by the sexism of scientists. After the Twitter and Facebook feeds went wild with feminist complaints, large media outlets began carrying the story, and Taylor himself offered a weeping apology for the “lucky” shirt he superstitiously wears on important, risk-filled days.

Meanwhile, the initial news about Gruber’s miscues came from the right. It started when conservative bloggers had their attention drawn by an unhappy Obamacare customer to a video in which Gruber clearly stated the view about the insurance exchanges that underlies the current Supreme Court case about Obamacare — that only people who sign up for insurance through Obamacare exchanges established by their state are eligible to receive subsidies. Gruber tried to back away from the implication by calling it a “speak-o,” in analogy to a “typo.” But then additional videos began to surface, more and more, until we had Gruber at one conference after another explaining how clever, sneaky, and politically adroit the Obamacare bill had been. Democrats couldn’t run away from the man fast enough. Where they once lauded him, in numerous speeches and even on the White House’s website, they now insist he had little to do with the bill — and besides, they hardly knew him. Certainly they don’t know him anymore. These days, Jonathan Gruber is the man left on the stoop as the butler announces, “Madame is not at home to you” and firmly closes the door.

Still, Taylor and Gruber do share something. They both took behavior that is thought acceptable and even admirably daring within their particular subgroups and found that it doesn’t play so well on a larger public stage. In Taylor’s case, that’s the geeky world of rocket scientists and science-fiction devotees, where it’s hip — among those not typically known for their hipness — to make knowing references back to the bullet-breasted heroines in tight costumes who graced the covers of 1950s sci-fi pulp. Taylor’s shirt is the kind that would have gotten a cheer at the monthly programmers’ club meeting in Palo Alto.

In Gruber’s case, the subgroup is powerful professors. Professors, that is to say, who’ve been let in on some important business or government project and return home to tell their fellow academics all about it. Watch any of the Gruber videos, and you’ll see it right away. What the man is trying to tell his audiences in these mostly college settings is that he’s an insider. He’s seen how the sausage is made, and he’s returned home to confirm his friends’ suspicions about how comic, duplicitous, and bizarre are the inner workings of government. Of course, he’s also seeking the admiration of his fellow academics. The subtext of his performances is that, just as we scholars always suspected, the American political system can be gamed and beaten by us smart professors (especially admirable, cynical me). Gruber is a hipster, among those not typically known for their hipness, and he wowed ’em at the faculty club.

For all that Taylor immediately issued an abject apology, his faux pas was considerably less consequential than Gruber’s. The feminist Twitter mob insisted that Taylor’s shirt revealed his sexism, but what it actually revealed is how completely Taylor had internalized the mores of his tribe. The poor schnook couldn’t put on a jacket and tie for the biggest day of his life? Apparently not.

Gruber, though, has done the same. His hunger to be seen as a big wheel, his tribe’s genuine rainmaker, is what’s on display in his videos. The poor schnook couldn’t shut his yap about the biggest job of his life? Apparently not — not even if the cost might be what, in fact, it proves to have been: exposing Obamacare for the shoddy, dishonest, and cynical legislation that it was.

— Joseph Bottum is a best-selling writer of Kindle Singles on Amazon and author, most recently, of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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