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Coronavirus Brings Federalism Back in Style (Washington Examiner) April 21, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Most of the big policy issues are not actually problems to be solved but dilemmas to be managed. A problem stands between point A, where you are, and point B, where you want to go, and you have to solve it. A dilemma, on the other hand, presents two or more competing and yet fundamental values, so there is no final solution; instead, it requires managing.

In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, on the one hand, we want to keep people safe. So public policy demands quarantines, distancing, shutdowns, masks, and gloves. On the other hand, we do not want to foster another Great Depression, so economic well-being creates pressure in another direction: to open things up and get them moving again. You do not solve that — you manage it, giving due weight to each horn of the dilemma, adjusting the balance constantly.

What is different in this policy crisis is that the president himself has abandoned the traditional role of synthesizer and decider in favor of advocating one side of the dilemma. Instead of synthesis, President Trump gives us antithesis, turning the whole decision process on its head.

We could say that science and public health give us the thesis here: We need strong government intervention and action to keep our health system from being overwhelmed and to keep people safe. The antithesis, naturally, comes from the business and economic community: America has to eat, sustain itself, travel, and keep the financial wheels turning.

Normally, then, we would look to government to balance the thesis and antithesis and give us some kind of reasonable synthesis. That’s what the senior decision-makers must do; that’s why they’re paid the big bucks. Government is the neutral arbitrator that can study, listen, weigh, and manage these difficult questions.

Except in this case, the president has abdicated the synthesis throne. After first saying he was in charge and he would decide when to reopen the economy, Trump quickly retreated and told the governors they should decide. Having left the middle of the field, the next day he was on the business/economy sideline, leading the cheers and jeers for governors to move away from the shutdown. Described as “chomping at the bit” to get the economy going, he has sided with protesters of stay-at-home orders, saying some governors have “gone too far.”

While it was clear from the start that Trump would be a disruptor president, taking sides in a national emergency, rather than leading from the center, has been unsettling to many. The good news, however, is that the federal system is resilient enough to adapt. Governors have, in fact, stepped forward to manage the crisis. Governors are the ones who are publishing guidelines for getting back to work. Governors are reaching out to each other and forming regional agreements about when and how to move forward.

In reality, the government response to the COVID-19 crisis has swung the policy pendulum back from Washington to state and local governments. Some counties and states that were hit harder and earlier had to mobilize more quickly and did. Governors rallied businesses and nonprofit groups to help build supply lines and open up new facilities for healthcare. Now, the primary responsibility for returning things to normal also rests with state and local governments.

For decades, government power has traveled a one-way superhighway to Washington and specifically down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Traditional state issues such as education, welfare, and healthcare have become federal matters. A national state of emergency would have been an obvious time for the president to consolidate even more power, but whether you like or not, he largely has not done so.

When this is over, you can bemoan the lack of presidential leadership, or you can celebrate the resilience and return of federalism.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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