No Political Traction

Federalism isn't irrelevant to the 2008 presidential campaign. It's just that no candidate is framing ways for the feds to deal with the big issues.
December 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance and the Brookings Institution

Not long ago, no self-respecting presidential candidate would run without a federalism plan. Ronald Reagan's 1980 nomination acceptance speech pledged to turn over to state and local governments everything they could run more effectively, along with the money to pay for it. State and local governments never liked the deal -- they got the work without the money -- but no one could complain that Reagan didn't have a plan. Bill Clinton said he would ease the load of unfunded mandates, while George W. Bush pledged to leave no child behind.

No real federalism plan has emerged from the current crop of candidates. In fact, the candidates seem to have embraced a policy of having no policy. They are so obsessed by the wedge issues in swing states that they see little point in framing a national federalism agenda, but there is a long list of big issues that need attention.

o Make America healthy: Bush's battle with Congress over health insurance for children badly singed Republicans, who found themselves on the wrong side of the "Who cares about children?" issue. No one wants Congress to sign a blank check, but leaving 6 million children without health care proved a losing hand. Meanwhile, the whole health care system needs help, and slicing it into state-sized bites inevitably makes fixing the system harder and more expensive. No one, however, has the stomach to take on the whole puzzle of Medicaid and the spiraling cost of nursing home care. Sooner or later, the federal government will have to confront the health care dilemmas that individual states are now struggling with.

o Defend the homeland: National security is the one inescapable element of the 2008 campaign. State and local homeland security debates have moved from the early struggle to distribute a large pot of new cash to coordination questions, including integrating federal with state and local efforts and ensuring that communications systems connect. This year's California wildfires show we have made real progress, but Katrina's coordination nightmares lurk in the background.

o Manage the borders: Immigration remains a truly nasty issue that the next president will have to address. But the problem is incredibly complex: promoting cross-border commerce, deciding whether illegal immigrants are entitled to government services, determining whether aliens should get driver's licenses, and producing secure borders. It's little wonder no candidate wants to talk about immigration problems, but the next president will have to tackle them.

o Go green: Federal environmental policy has melted, but state and local governments' environmental efforts are surging. After reviewing California's innovative emissions-reduction efforts, University of Michigan political scientist Barry Rabe concluded that "the state can even lay credible claim to 'world leadership' on this issue." Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty made "securing a clean energy future" the center of his year-long chairmanship of the National Governors Association and the U.S. Conference of Mayors held a two-day Climate Protection Summit in Seattle on "green" building codes. If the next president doesn't embrace the states' strategies to reduce greenhouse gases and develop clean energy, the federal government risks being left behind in the dust.

o Think regionally: Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution argues that regions, not states and cities, will drive the 21st-century economy, that local officials are forced to go it alone "since the federal government is outdated and out of step with rapid change." His solution? "Flip the pyramid" by putting "the federal government squarely in the service of state and local leaders," who are driving the nation's economy.

This is one of the true "big ideas" on the federalism agenda. It reflects both the state and local advances on many major domestic issues and the federal government's lack of traction. Katz argues the case for using federal power to advance regional growth. That is sage advice, but presidential candidates might see it as pushing the federal government to the back seat. It certainly wouldn't prove a very sexy script for a presidential campaign.

It's little wonder, then, that presidential candidates haven't leapt to advance a federalism agenda.