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Federalism and fighting coronavirus

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The Federalist system of shared responsibilities between a strong federal government and the states is tailor made for dealing with a pandemic.

A national crisis requires a central command coordinating and channeling resources. In a country as disparate as the United States there are markedly different regional situations best handled locally.

As America suffers through the worst domestic crisis since the Great Depression, the system depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the players, all on vivid display these past several months.

The federal role has been well served by excellent scientists and potential use, if done properly, of an effective military. But the initial failures have been tragic, costing both lives and treasure.

The regional picture also is mixed. Some governors showed forceful presence, preventing more suffering and loss. Others have been ignorant — and their states are paying a price.

There are two overriding failures of the Trump administration. The president’s blatant unwillingness to level and lead in a crisis. He repeatedly boasted and exaggerated the late January limits he imposed on travel from China, where the virus originated. Then, for the next month and a half, he assured Americans all was fine.

At the end of February Trump exclaimed there were only 15 cases and in “a couple days it’s going to be close to zero.” Less than two months later, the U.S. cases have surpassed 1 million, with more than 66,000 deaths.

The administration’s failure on testing is stunning. After the initial testing kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were flawed, the administration didn’t turn to the World Health Organization for help or mount a crash program.

“The record on testing has been an embarrassment, a strategic disappointment,” says Gerald Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy program at Texas A&M. Parker, who worked in the George W. Bush administration, two years ago warned that the nation was ill-prepared for a likely pandemic.

Trump’s claim that the U.S. is doing more testing per capita than anywhere in the world is a travesty. Despite a huge ramp up, after the dismal start, America is still testing about one-third less Germany, which has less than half the death rate.

The picture on the state level is mixed too. The behavior of some Governors is appalling. South Dakota’s Kristi Noem in early April dismissed social distancing as “draconian.” Since then, the state has suffered more than 2,500 cases, including a huge outbreak at a meat plant. In Georgia on April 1, after health officials warned for months the virus could be transmitted by people who’re asymptomatic, Gov. Brian Kemp said that was news to him. Recently, against the advice of health experts, Kemp said restaurants, fitness centers, massage and tattoo parlors and other venues would be able to open.

Many governors have been exemplary: Democrats from Rhode Island to Washington state and Republicans from Maryland and Massachusetts to Ohio.

John Barry’s epic book “The Great Influenza,” chronicling the pandemic of 1918, the closest parallel to today, depicts the crucial role of federalism. The Woodrow Wilson administration’s national response was pathetic on a pandemic that took 675,000 American lives. On the local level, the telling contrast was between Philadelphia, which ignored the threat (even staging a parade after the break out), and St.Louis, which closed schools, church and synagogues, staggered work shifts and required social distancing.

The death rate per capita in St.Louis was less than half that in Philadelphia.

A contemporary illustration is comparing the experiences of California and Florida, two of the three largest states with diverse populations, tourist destinations with not dissimilar climates. California Gov. Gavin Newsom moved aggressively in mid-March closing schools and mandating stay at home and other measures. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was skeptical of tough mitigation moves until two weeks later and now may foolishly be opening up too quickly.

COVID-19 infection rates are 19 percent less in California than Florida.

The troubling challenge in the next three to six months is confronting the continuing health crisis and opening an economy facing depression-level depths, threatening social disorder. This needs to be done cautiously and selectively, driven by data not dates, policy not politics.

This needs a robust and smart central government coordinating with responsive and creative state and local governments attuned to their situations. Texas A&M’s Parker, commenting on testing needs but applicable overall, says “a national strategy is necessary but not sufficient,” noting that it must be “crafted in a manner that can be adopted and implemented in a flexible approach at state and local levels.”

The White House guidelines were a good step, setting reasonable conditions and metrics. The states would be the decision-makers.

Then a day later, Trump — with his infamous tweets — sought to fire up his political base by assailing three Democratic Governors for not opening up quickly enough.

The founders got it right on federalism. They just didn’t see a Donald Trump.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Brian Kemp Coronavirus Coronavirus response COVID-19 Donald Trump Federalism Gavin Newsom Kristi Noem Ron DeSantis

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