Federalism Hits Its Peak during Virus

Federalism Hits Its Peak during Virus


The coronavirus didn't come with a set of instructions. There's no contingency plan, no precedent, no lessons learned from past administrations. For once, history can't teach us how to cope. It can only remind us who we are. And maybe, in a crisis like this one, that's the most important thing of all.

No one can prepare a president for tragedy. When people look back at Donald Trump, and how he handled this catastrophe, everyone will have their own opinions. He's a unique leader facing a unique problem -- but his solutions, they will realize, were fundamentally American. After years of looking to the federal government for every answer, he reminded the country how it was supposed to work. He is the head of the executive branch, true. But in a nation of 50 different states with different needs, he knew there was only one answer to a disaster this complex: federalism.

Local control and decentralization are quaint ideas to a lot of politicians. For Democrats and even some Republicans, national emergencies are the one time when massive government expansion isn't just expected -- but accepted. So imagine people's surprise when President Trump, facing an unprecedented challenge with tens of thousands of casualties, takes the less traveled road. Instead of centralizing power, he's returning it to the states. For once, the Wall Street Journal's Christopher DeMuth notes with wonder, an administration "seems intent on keeping the crisis from generating a permanent expansion of federal and executive powers." And, in so doing, is "upending one of the most durable patterns of American politics."

Trump, DeMuth declares, is "rewriting the book on emergencies." He's deferred decisions on closures, testing, treatment to local officials. He's deregulated decisions on medicine, health care, and interstate commerce. "But mainly, he has given pride of place to federalism and private enterprise -- lauding the patriotism and proficiency of our fantastic governors and mayors, our incredible business leaders and genius companies, our heroic doctors and nurses and orderlies, and our tremendous truckers. By shouting out many of them by name and documenting their deeds on a daily basis, he has vivified the American way in action (once reluctantly aroused)."

If people question why he hasn't issued nationwide orders, he responds simply that the states are all dealing with varying levels of infection and should be empowered to respond appropriately. Together, it's all resulted in a bifurcation of the states that we haven't seen in decades. Even Republicans haven't been immune to the temptations of power-grabbing and expansion. After 9/11, America witnessed a massive growth of government when President George Bush added huge agencies with extraordinary authority. Now obviously, there were some problems that needed to be addressed federally, but this president is pushing the responsibility -- along with resources -- back to the states and allowing them to craft a response that fits their community.

Of course, as Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) pointed out on "Washington Watch," that doesn't mean people appreciate it. "I have to say," she agreed, "President Trump is doing a good job." But unfortunately, she sighed, "He can't win." "On one hand, Democrats and liberals will say, 'Oh, you need a federal response, you need a federal testing program, you need a federal program to distribute ventilators.' And, they were complaining, complaining, complaining. I heard this non-stop. And then when the president does say he wants to do something, then it's, 'Oh, he wants to be a king...'" People who want to hate him, she argued, are going to hate him no matter what he does.

And what he's doing, Lesko agrees, is giving our country the chance to be creative and create more competition. "There's a lot of innovation going on," she said, because of this deregulation. "My Democratic colleagues think government is answer for everything. I haven't found one thing -- except maybe law enforcement and the military -- that the government is better [at] than the private sector. So I'm glad that President Trump and his administration are taking this tactic."

It's a refreshing change from the heavy, one-size-fits-all approach of past presidents. And who knows? America may emerge from this privatized, decentralized response more economically stable than we did in past crises. Because, although we've had this historic infusion of funding, pushing this back to the states means we won't be creating new entities that require money in the future. So when this crisis passes, there's a good chance the increased spending will too. Either way, DeMuth insists, it will "be a great blessing" that, for once, a catastrophe of this magnitude was "managed and subdued with vigorous localism." It proves that government can provide leadership and still "stay within its constitutional rails."