Winners and Losers in Post-Coronavirus Government

We used to look to Washington for leadership in times of national crisis. Those days are gone, and we're seeing a transfer of power. Which level of government will come out on top?

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti walks out to address protesters and clergy members who are participating in a march and peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
This Monday marked the 100th day since the first coronavirus death was reported in the United States. I'm going to use that statistic to make what will seem at first glance a rather unfair comparison: I'm comparing these 100 days with the same length of time in the spring of 1933, at the height of the most acute national crisis of the 20th century, the Great Depression.

Franklin Roosevelt's 100 days didn't have anything to do with a natural or public-health disaster like the current one; they also came roughly in the middle of the crisis, not at the beginning. Still, a few points are worth making.

In the first 100 days of his administration, Roosevelt signed 76 bills into law, including 13 major ones. He stabilized the banking system, presided over the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Industrial Recovery Act, and saw to the spending of then-massive sums on blankets and soup kitchens.

None of those achievements relate to the present pandemic, but they are relevant in one important way: They created the public perception of a big and powerful federal government willing to try almost anything to lift the country out of the abyss into which it had fallen. By the end of the 100 days, that government had grown stronger and more prestigious, and everyone in the country knew it, whether they were happy about it or not.

Whatever else you might want to say about the coronavirus, it hasn't made the federal government look stronger. It has made it look weaker. As my longtime Governing colleague Don Kettl puts it, "Although COVID-19 became a clearly national problem, the country did not meet it with a national response." There was no federal crash program of testing, no effective distribution of supplies, no clear or consistent message from the president or his administration on what ordinary citizens and their elected leaders should do.

But I won't dwell on that. Donald Trump is no FDR. That will come as a surprise to no one. What I want to do is take a look at one kind of strength the Roosevelt administration had in 1933 that the feds do not possess now. That was numerical strength.

In just about any political situation you can name, we tend to overvalue personalities and undervalue simple political numbers. Here are the numbers FDR was working with in 1933: The U.S. Senate was Democratic by a margin of 60 to 36. The House had 313 Democrats and 117 Republicans — almost a 3-to-1 majority. And there were 38 Democratic governors out of 48 states. FDR could essentially do anything he wanted. Donald Trump most likely wouldn't have had a plan for what to do with those numbers even if he had them. But when they don't exist, it's probably unrealistic to expect that the national government is going to come out of a crisis with enhanced power in the federal system.

And it's hard to see this changing any time soon. In large part, that's because of the filibuster. Even if one party has clear majorities in Congress, it won't have 60 votes in the Senate. So decisive action will require a significant amount of bipartisanship. One can always hope, but that does not appear to be anywhere on the horizon.

I WOULD ARGUE that, in general, political power doesn't evaporate; it transfers. So it's reasonable to ask which level of government is likely to be the beneficiary of this kind of transfer. One reasonable conjecture is that power in the system might be flowing to the states. Let's take a look at that.

It's tempting to recall the old Louis Brandeis adage from the Depression about states being the "laboratories of democracy." Suppose we ask which states and which governors have emerged from the last couple of months looking pretty good.

Andrew Cuomo attracted something of a national following from New York with his folksy but realistic press conferences addressing the spread of the virus and what could be done about it. Jay Inslee in Washington state led a pioneering effort in the development of contact tracing. Gavin Newsom in California took the early lead on stay-at-home orders, with good results, at least so far.

What do those governors have in common? The most important thing is a function of numbers. They have solid legislative majorities willing to cooperate with them. It's also true that they are Democrats, but this isn't strictly a partisan matter. GOP Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio was able to take early decisive action with a Republican legislature behind him, although there has been some friction lately.

If those examples were typical, it might be possible to speculate that the Brandeis doctrine still applies in the 21st century. But they are the exceptions. They are outnumbered (and generally outshouted) by more than a dozen states in which the governorship and the legislature are held by different parties. Those states have generally embarrassed themselves.

In most of them, legislatures have sought to obstruct governors rather than providing assistance. Republican lawmakers in Kansas went to the state Supreme Court to prevent Gov. Laura Kelly from carrying out a declaration of emergency. GOP legislators in Michigan did essentially the same thing. Pennsylvania legislators sought to force reopening of businesses in defiance of Gov. Tom Wolf's executive order. More than 40 Wisconsin Republicans said they would turn down federal aid to help with the state's fiscal problems, mostly because some of the federal assistance would go to neighboring Illinois, a state whose misfortunes they consider it a duty to promote. GOP legislators in Kentucky appeared in public with disgruntled militants who hung Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in effigy.

Granted, it's a mixed response. There are a handful of Republican governors and Democratic legislatures — Maryland and Massachusetts are the best examples — who have managed to cooperate. But the sheer volume of disagreement and partisan bickering has worked against any notion of the states as a cohesive or effective alternative to the gridlocked government in Washington.

On top of that, legislatures in many of the bickering states have sought to pick quarrels with their localities as well as with their governors. They have proposed (and occasionally enacted) laws pre-empting the locals from taking decisive steps of their own to deal with the pandemic. This has found favor with some zealous constituents at the grassroots level, but it only adds to the perception that the states, as a whole, are too confused right now to be appropriate heirs to the power that the feds are giving up.

WELL, TWO DOWN, ONE TO GO. The feds and the states are, to an alarming extent, behaving badly. Are the locals — the cities and counties and their leaders — doing any better?

It seems to me the answer is yes, especially when it comes to mayors. Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles instituted a massive testing effort that cities around the country quickly copied. Jenny Durkan in Seattle proved to be a West Coast version of Cuomo, delivering effective talks about the need to follow the findings of responsible science and pushing through emergency assistance to vulnerable households. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell came up with an $18 million emergency feeding program aimed at helping both residents and restaurants. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, derided as bland and unimaginative by critics during her five years in office, found an eloquent voice in her challenge to the feds over their response to the George Floyd protests.

It isn't just a few big-city mayors. Within hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out Gov. Tony Evers' statewide stay-at-home order, most of the large cities and counties around the state responded by enacting similar orders of their own. Some localities were uncertain about what to do, and some of the orders have since been relaxed, but the whole episode made a statement about latent power that the localities can exercise when they want to.

Here again, numbers matter. Most of the big cities in America are governed by cohesive one-party majorities. The bulk of them are Democratic: 64 Democratic mayors in the 100 largest cities, and Democratic control of city councils (according to the last available figures) by a ratio of 52 percent to 19 percent. But I don't think it's partisanship that matters most here. It's the existence of a majority big enough to govern.

In the last few years we've seen a couple of significant books predicting the rise of local power. The late Benjamin Barber wrote one in 2013 called If Mayors Ruled the World. Barber's call for a global parliament of mayors seemed rather fanciful to me then, and it still does. But lots of mayors know about it, and that may be what matters. Just recently, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel published The Nation City, which insists that even before the coronavirus struck cities had become the primary locus of entrepreneurial leadership in the United States. Emanuel overstates the case a bit, as he does his own accomplishments. But the overall argument is looking better than it did just a few months ago.

I don't want to minimize the enormous financial pressure that cities are under right now. Some things mayors would like to do may not be affordable for a long time. But not all good ideas cost a fortune. And when the ideas are compelling enough, well run governments often manage to find a way.

We have had laboratories of democracy do good things in this country, and we have also seen them close down, even for long periods of time. But that doesn't mean we can't look for new ones.

Alan Ehrenhalt served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine, and is currently one of its contributing editors. He can be reached at