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Angry Citizen's Impact

West Chester's Rich Weinstein unearthed video that tripped up an architect of Obamacare.

Economist Jonathan Gruber during a U.S. House Oversight Committee grilling in Washington last week.
Economist Jonathan Gruber during a U.S. House Oversight Committee grilling in Washington last week.Read moreANDREW HARRER / Bloomberg

The story of West Chester investment adviser Rich Weinstein shows that sometimes even the White House is no match for one angry citizen with a fast Internet connection and plenty of determination.

Last week, Weinstein's relentless archive-diving on the intellectual origins of the Obamacare health insurance law helped put MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, often hailed as an "architect" of the plan, in the dock for hours of embarrassing interrogation from the U.S. House Oversight Committee.

Mostly, Gruber had to apologize for insulting the intelligence of voters. In a 2013 University of Pennsylvania appearance, Gruber had defended the need to obfuscate the language of the Affordable Care Act so that nobody would construe its mandate to buy health insurance as a tax.

"This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes," Gruber said. "Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. Call it the stupidity of the America voter, or whatever."

Weinstein, who is in his mid-40s, dug up that devastating clip. It quickly went viral.

"I'm nobody, an amateur," Weinstein said in an interview. "I"m just really good at connecting the dots, for some reason."

It's the latest evidence that the most potent force in American politics these days is a few minutes or even seconds of damning video.

"In many ways, they define the conversation, especially when these things feed into preestablished narratives," said Christopher Borick, political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

One reason these moments pack so much power is that so much of politics today is tightly scripted, drained of color or spontaneity. Deviations can be revealing.

In the 2012 campaign, for instance: Who can forget how a well-placed smartphone recorded Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney complaining at a fund-raiser about the "47 percent" of Americans dependent on government? It supported the Democratic narrative on Romney - that he was out of touch.

Four years earlier, then-Sen. Barack Obama was zapped by a citizen journalist who taped his remarks at a fund-raiser in San Francisco, complaining to the quiche-eaters that the rural voters in places like Pennsylvania "cling to their guns and religion." That reinforced many conservatives' belief that liberal Democrats are hostile to the values of rural Americans.

An earlier Weinstein discovery in the Gruber oeuvre has been cited in a legal challenge to a key provision of the Affordable Care Act - in a case that is headed for the Supreme Court.

Last winter, Weinstein read a newspaper opinion piece that said a strict reading of the law's language would rule out subsidies for people buying health insurance in states that hadn't set up their own exchanges. In all, 37 states declined to do so, relying instead on a federally run exchange.

The argument sounded familiar to Weinstein. He reached for a Gruber video he had unearthed earlier. In it, the economist seemed to endorse the conservative view, describing subsidies as incentives to get states to participate.

"What's important to remember politically about this is, if you're a state and you don't set up an exchange, that means your citizens don't get their tax credits - but your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill," Gruber said. "So you're essentially saying [to] your citizens, 'You're going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country.' "

Weinstein e-mailed his find to public officials and media outlets everywhere. At first he was ignored.

"Nobody would listen to me," he said. "People in the media are swamped with 'idiots' like me who think they've got something big."

Then, in July, a federal appeals court ruled 2-1 in favor of plaintiffs trying to halt the subsidies. Clicking around on the Web, Weinstein posted a comment on a Washington Post blog item about the decision - along with a link to the Gruber video he had unearthed.

An official of the Conservative Enterprise Institute saw it - and promoted it.

The next morning, Weinstein checked his Google news alerts on his iPad, and his name popped up next to Gruber's all over the place. By afternoon, he was at a Wawa listening to the radio as Rush Limbaugh expounded on the video.

"The White House was responding - it was surreal," Weinstein said.

The investment adviser says he began his sleuthing at the end of 2013, when he got a notice saying his family's health plan did not meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act. He found a new plan - that cost twice as much.

"When President Obama said, 'If you like your plan, you can keep it,' I believed him," Weinstein recalled. "I didn't even think about it." When he heard otherwise, he got angry: He felt the administration had lied.

He said he Googled "architects" of the law and pored over every video he could. "I wound up bingeing on Dr. Gruber," Weinstein said. The search was on.

Now he's famous.

On Monday, he is scheduled to get an award from the conservative talk-radio giant WPHT-AM (1210). But Weinstein doesn't consider himself particularly ideological. He said his voting history ranges from Bill Clinton to Ross Perot to Mitt Romney. (He declined to say for whom he voted in 2008.)

Weinstein has received calls and autographed photos from conservative luminaries, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).

"In 10 or 20 years, when this all seems like a dream or it's lost in the fog of history, I want to look up at my office wall. . . . I'll know I had a small part," Weinstein said.

But he said that the moral of the story is not about him. It's about the "failure of the media" to vet Obamacare as it was being drafted, and about making sure that the powers-that-be are up-front with voters.

One thing is sure. They won't ignore Weinstein any more.