Democratic candidates should talk flexible federalism

Democrats should talk about how they will empower local innovators and use flexible federalism as a way to solve national challenges.

by Dane Stangler, Director of Policy Innovation| Progressive Policy Institute

Only Washington can solve our problems. That, evidently, is what any voter or casual follower of American politics might forgivably conclude after listening to the Democrats who are vying to take on President Trump next year.

Myriad proposals are being thrown around for the federal government to provide health care for all, free education for all, and guarantee everyone jobs. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have proposed the Green New Deal, which would essentially have the federal government take on the task of reinventing the energy industry and, well, the entire economy.

At this moment, however, what the United States does not need is further centralization in Washington. As PPI president Will Marshall has written, we have a “mismatch of scale” in terms of problem-solving. Washington is too big to deal effectively with life’s everyday problems yet too small to cope alone with things that spill over national borders: trade, climate, and action to contain pandemics, for example. That’s why we need more distributed problem-solving. And with Washington today mired in political dysfunction, we especially need more empowerment of state and, especially, local government.

America, in short, needs a new flexible federalism.

We need to rediscover the American truism that, as Will put it, “if one level of government stops working, the locus of public problem-solving shifts elsewhere.” Yet today, we seem to be only looking to Washington.

It is ironic, actually, that so many of the 23 confirmed candidates running for the Democratic nomination are pushing a Washington-centric philosophy. By our count, most of them have experience in state, city, and county government. They know what the challenges are — but they also know what the opportunities are. They know, as PPI has found in our polling, that Americans of all political stripes distrust the federal government but have high levels of satisfaction with responsive local government.

Six of the Democratic candidates have experience in state government:

  • Steve Bullock: attorney general and governor of Montana;
  • Tulsi Gabbard: state legislature;
  • Kamala Harris: attorney general of California;
  • John Hickenlooper: governor of Colorado;
  • Jay Inslee: state legislature and governor of Washington;
  • Tim Ryan: state senate.

More remarkably, 15 of the 23 candidates have local government experience (this includes three of those with state experience). An unprecedented number (seven) have been mayors, but the collective local government experience is quite varied.

  • Michael Bennet: superintendent of Denver Public Schools;
  • Joe Biden: two years on the New Castle city council in the 1970s;
  • Bill de Blasio: mayor of New York City;
  • Cory Booker: mayor of Newark;
  • Pete Buttigieg: mayor of South Bend, IN;
  • Julian Castro: mayor of San Antonio;
  • Harris: city attorney and local district attorney;
  • Hickenlooper: mayor of Denver;
  • Inslee: city prosecutor;
  • Amy Klobuchar: county attorney;
  • Wayne Messam: mayor of Miramar, FL;
  • Beto O’Rourke: city council;
  • Bernie Sanders: mayor of Burlington, VT;
  • Eric Swalwell: county deputy district attorney and city council.

And don’t forget Andrew Yang, whose local credentials come from founding and running Venture for America. This innovative program, modeled on Teach for America, charges entrepreneurial individuals with helping revitalize growth in specific regions of the country.

This shouldn’t be too surprising, of course. Most politicians on the national stage got their start in local politics. The national parties work hard to develop deep “benches” of officeholders and candidates at the state, county, and city levels. It’s also encouraging. Even though many voters are seemingly drawn to outsider candidates, we usually end up with political leaders who have honed their skills at close range. They have addressed basic public issues like road repair and learned how to transact and compromise.

It is entirely natural for presidential candidates to make sweeping national proposals. That’s part of what we expect from them. But the Democratic party doesn’t need a candidate consolidating more power in Washington. Democrats need someone who will recognize states, counties, and cities as partners in progressive problem-solving, as key elements of flexible federalism.

Some of Democrats’ biggest achievements have come from empowering state and local government to address challenges together. President Obama’s expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act is one (incomplete) example. Further back, President Clinton used performance-based grants rather than siloed funding to catalyze welfare innovations.

Today’s Democratic candidates need to ask — and be asked by voters, donors, and activists — a set of questions oriented to renewing flexible federalism. Again echoing Will Marshall, these questions include: how can the federal government enable and empower innovation in state and local government? What can be done to support regional collaborations and public-private partnerships? How can the federal government help spread lessons about what works locally in catalyzing job and business creation? What obstacles need to be removed to improving local education and career training? What constructive role can state and local government play in national issues such as immigration? How can states, too, help support city and county innovation?

The next two posts will dig into these issues. We will examine what flexible federalism actually looks like in practice. And, we’ll look realistically at the future of flexible federalism, especially in the face of constrained local resources.

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