Gov. Larry Hogan’s firm action to mitigate the corona virus outbreak in Maryland is being lauded as a model of executive leadership in a time of crisis. The praise is well-deserved, as the scientific evidence makes very clear that the only workable strategy to slow the progression of the virus — and eventually reverse its spread — is to shut down all large gatherings.
Not all state governors are so sure-footed in their crisis leadership. While a good many governors also have acted appropriately to the crisis, others have been slow to make decisions to protect the public. The same for city mayors — some have been at the forefront of crisis leadership, others too slow to act.
Perhaps the anti-models of good leadership are the governor of Oklahoma tweeting a picture of himself at a restaurant at the height of the crisis, and the mayor of New York City delaying so long that the state governor had to mandate action after the virus spread was already too great.
At the essence of the U.S. failure to avert this crisis are a federal system that gives enormous discretion to states and localities in responding to crises, and a presidential administration that has demonstrated neglectful leadership at a time when federal action could have made a big difference.
The U.S. federal system to be sure is a remarkable government construct that has largely served as a hallmark of the most stable democratic regime in history. During normal times, the system’s flexibility and adaptability to local values and customs have ensured widespread public respect for government authority and the rule of law. What works well in Maryland may not work in Virginia, and definitely not in Arkansas. And that’s fine. Eleven states legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 39 others have not, although some will come along when they are ready, and others will retain opposition to legalization.
It is during crises and emergencies when the virtue of a complex and multi-layered federal system is challenged. States do not act in unison, and cooperation between the national and subnational governments isn’t always effective or even existent in some cases.
Take Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated the Gulf Coast states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The states on their own simply were not up to the task of solving the crisis, and yet the federal government response was one of delay, as the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency effectively folded his arms and waited for the state and local governments to respond first. The consequences were severe for the people of those states.
The storms that ravaged parts of Texas, Florida and especially Puerto Rico in 2017 again showcased the limits of a federal system in a crisis. States couldn’t do everything needed on their own and the federal response was highly inadequate. Perhaps the most telling episode was the president of the United States lecturing Puerto Rico to do more to solve its own problem, and not to come to the federal government seeking solutions.
The Trump administration response to the corona virus outbreak will go in the history books as one of the most colossal failures ever of presidential leadership. The severity of the outbreak could have been averted weeks ago, but the president downplayed it, ignored scientific advice, and that left disaster mitigation to states and localities.
Many state and local leaders are making the right decisions to try to get through this crisis. But there is no national coordination and those subnational governments slow to act are endangering everyone. Without some aggressive national action, many will continue to act with less than the urgency required in this situation.
Federalism in the U.S. has great virtues during normal times. But in crises and emergencies a sure-handed national effort is necessary. And that is tragically lacking right now.
Mark J. Rozell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of the book Federalism: A Very Short Introduction. He lives in Maryland.