Barack Obama and the field of Republican presidential challengers have crossed swords on lots of issues, but their battles over the future of federalism are epic. It’s partly about money, partly about control and fundamentally about the effort to figure out how to “promote the general welfare,” as the preamble of the Constitution puts it.
On the front line of the battle are mandates: whether the feds or the states ought to call the shots. Both the Democrats and Republicans want to ease up on mandates, but for different programs and for vastly different reasons.
Obama has proposed easing the pressure on the states building from No Child Left Behind, one of the George W. Bush administration’s signature accomplishments. As tough performance deadlines for math and reading draw near in 2014, state and local education officials are worrying that many schools will fall short. In September, Obama pointed to University Park Campus School, in Worcester, Mass., as a case in point. Every student who graduated from the school in the past three years went to college, but the school still fell short of No Child Left Behind’s targets. That meant the school was “labeled a failure,” Obama pointed out, despite its successes. “That’s not right,” he said. “That needs to change.”
So Obama proposed that states should be able to seek waivers from some of the law’s performance requirements, in exchange for creating tough teacher-evaluation systems and school-designed accountability systems. Republicans countered that Obama was trying to rewrite the law through administrative fiat. “This sets a dangerous precedent,” Republican John Kline of Minnesota, chair of the House Education & the Workforce Committee, told The New York Times.
But some Republicans have pushed their own waiver proposals for the new health-care act. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, said at the Sept. 20 GOP debate that as president he’d direct the feds to “grant a waiver from Obamacare to all 50 states.” Other Republicans have pushed rollbacks for different federal health programs. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann voted in 2007 and 2009 against expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Texas Rep. Ron Paul opposed more money for CHIP as well. Businessman Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman both favor ending the federal Medicaid mandate and turning the program into a block grant to the states. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has proposed having his state opt out of Medicaid completely.
Some of this is obvious partisan politics. It’s no surprise that Obama would like to knock the legs out from under a Bush administration program, and that the Republicans are arguing for state sovereignty in some of the Democrats’ cherished federal entitlements. But it goes much deeper. What most unites the Republican candidates has been an attack on government -- mostly the federal government. With federal policies from health to immigration under assault in many states, the Democrats are fighting to keep a federal foothold in the programs they care most about.
Big elections are about big ideas, and 2012 is undoubtedly a big election, with the balance of power in federalism at the core. But lurking behind that big question are even bigger puzzles that cut right to the heart of government’s role. When problems happen, whose job is it to solve them? And when government is the answer, just how far should it go?
For example, who’s in charge of addressing disasters that strain local first responders? This summer, fierce brush fires ravaged central Texas. Republicans took a break from attacking big government to challenge the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to terminate an air tanker contract, saying that the feds had arbitrarily pulled federal assets off the front lines just when Texas residents needed federal help. Forest Service officials, looking back at a series of air tanker crashes in recent years, countered that the company had not met its obligations to ensure that the tankers were safe and airworthy. Antigovernment fervor sometimes melts away when flames are licking at a community’s front door.
And who should pay the costs of long-term care? It’s one thing to debate whether the states or the feds should be in charge of Medicaid, but behind the battle is a huge challenge. More of the elderly are living longer, outlasting their savings and drifting into a world where they can’t take care of themselves. Medicaid finds its budget increasingly drained by nursing home costs for the poor elderly, and as the baby boomers age, there’s no easy way out of the dilemma. No one, feds or states, has enough money to cover the costs of this program as it’s now operating. The Democrats are championing the entitlement without confronting the choices it’s bringing in the years ahead.
The mandate battle is surely important -- it defines who gets to make the call. It also echoes the ringing rhetoric that has shaped generations of American history. But it doesn’t begin to get at the core questions about 21st-century America -- what government should do and how to pay for it -- that whomever is elected in 2012 will have to face.