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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
What’s the difference between Maine and Tennessee? A lot.
Maine is the third most successful state in combating COVID-19 while Tennessee ranks seventh from the bottom.
Maine has two U.S. senators, one Republican and one independent, who accept the election of Joe Biden as president. Tennessee has two Republican U.S. senators, who signed on to an election challenge of state decisions.
COVID-19 policy and the election challenge are linked. Both are harmful to the states.
On fighting the virus, the Trump administration shifted responsibility onto states with often disastrous results. On the election, the self-interested president and his congressional backers have sought to override the constitutional clause assigning the states the deciding role in presidential elections.
One side, which dominates Tennessee politics, favors limiting the role of government and has supported virtually any Trump move, even at the expense of their own state. In Maine, a majority appears to favor a traditional role for government and balances a strong commitment to individual rights with community interest.
That translates into resistance to wearing masks in Tennessee with the resulting high spread of the virus. Maine has deployed a mask mandate and experienced higher compliance. The result is a much lower COVID-19 spread.
Senators from states like Tennessee, which originally supported Trump’s election claims, opposed a large COVID stimulus bill to help individuals and provide federal aid to states. Senators from states like Maine, who leave elections to the states, favored more aid for state budgets.
If there were ever a subject on which compromise was needed, it was on the most dangerous public health crisis the country has ever faced. Yet, despite the claims that it was a compromise, the most recent stimulus bill limited spending to a level in line with the Tennessee position.
Similarly, the bitter split over unsupported charges that the presidential election was subject to ballot tampering (only in states Trump lost), showed open resistance to bipartisanship and even to the American political tradition of accepting election results. The challenge is purely partisan, coming only from Republican-dominated states.
Dealing with both COVID-19 and the presidential election, Trump and his allies have been ready to push the states around.
To avoid possible blame for misjudging and mishandling the COVID-19 crisis, Trump shifted almost all key aspects of crisis management, except scientific work, to the states. The lack of presidential leadership left the patchwork fight against a virus that knows no boundaries.
Seeking to claim victory in the face of clear and documented defeat, Trump has sought to override the constitutional provision through which the states kept the control of elections for themselves when they created the federal government.
Maybe Trump is teaching the country a lesson about the American system of government. He believes in an all-powerful president, showing little respect for the states. Over his term in office, he has challenged the basic nature of the system.
The system survives. The courts have consistently ruled against Trump’s case based mostly on his assumptions about voter behavior and unsupported claims of tampering. Judges rejected his challenges and stressed that the states make the final judgment. A congressional majority agrees.
But government has also failed. In the absence of clear presidential leadership, the inability of Congress for months to even try to unify around a COVID-19 policy harmed the country and denied state aid. If a crushing majority could pass the defense bill over a presidential veto, why not a virus bill? Surely, the threat is as great.
Under these circumstances, federalism itself has suffered. The states have done as well as they could by conducting fair elections and, in many cases, fighting against both the virus and the indifference and political exploitation of the crisis by Trump and Congress.
That states like Maine and Tennessee can diverge on policies is a strength of the federal system. But 50 different solutions by the states do not work in a worldwide pandemic.
Congress treats states as mere federal subsidiaries, left begging for benefits doled out by Washington. And it continues to pass laws that give great powers to the federal executive. The result is a decline in the checks and balances of the federal government and in its relationship with the states.
The states seem to have been sacrificed for political expediency. In the words of a once famous comedian, they “don’t get no respect.”
Senators were originally meant to represent their state’s interests in Congress. The election controversy shows that many represent their party or focus only on partisans they need for their reelection — Trump’s loyal base.
Unless the congressional commitment to federalism improves, the core of the Constitution will fade into nothing more than a pleasant myth.