Race and the Politics of Health Reform

by Reihan Salam

Ron Brownstein has been writing a great deal about the president’s vulnerability among white voters. The corollary is Obama’s strength among non-white voters, and that is shaping the health reform debate in a variety of ways.

In November’s Kaiser Family Foundation health care tracking poll, two-thirds of non-white Americans said that their family would be better off if health care reform passes. Though the evidence suggests that non-college whites could also receive a disproportionate share of the bill’s spending (since they constitute more of the uninsured), they are dubious: just one-third of them believe they would be better off, a reflection of the mounting skepticism about government such blue-collar whites are expressing across the board. Yet the most skeptical group is the college-educated whites, the same constituency that has the most access to health insurance today: only about one-fourth of them expect to be better off under reform.

This reflects the fact that non-white voters are far more likely to be uninsured than white voters, particularly college-educated whites.

The latest annual Census Bureau figures show that in 2008 just 5.96 percent of college-educated whites lacked health insurance. For whites without a college education, the share without insurance jumps to 14.5 percent (the number is surely higher for non-college whites who are not union members). Among African-Americans, the share of those without insurance rises to 19.1 percent. Among Hispanics, the share of those without insurance soars to a daunting 30.7 percent, the Census found.

One is reminded of the old debate over whether Republicans should look to upscale or downscale voters to rebuild their majority. At the moment, my side, the partisans of going after downscale voters first, is losing the argument to those who recommend going after the voters Michael Petrilli has described as “Whole Foods Republicans.”

What makes these voters potential Republicans is that, lifestyle choices aside, they view big government with great suspicion. There’s no law that someone who enjoys organic food, rides his bike to work, or wants a diverse school for his kids must also believe that the federal government should take over the health-care system or waste money on thousands of social programs with no evidence of effectiveness. 

These voters, interestingly, are almost the opposite of Rod Dreher’s “Crunchy Cons,” the Birkenstocked Burkeans who are more aptly described as evangelical hippies than as affluent cosmopolitans with a libertarian streak a la the voters Petrilli has in mind. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.