The United States is about to find out whether the Articles of Confederation would have worked. The nation’s Founders scrapped that early charter because it left states to fend for themselves in moments of crisis. The Constitution that replaced it created a stronger federal government. But yesterday, President Donald Trump seemed to turn back the clock. In a conference call with the nation’s governors about the coronavirus pandemic, the president declared, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment—try getting it yourselves.”
Until now, our country has not faced a disaster that directly threatened all 50 states at the same time. Although 9/11 had consequences for the entire nation, the days and weeks after the attacks—during which states and communities far distant from Ground Zero sent equipment and personnel to New York—were a triumph of a mutual-aid system that presupposes that not everyone is in trouble at once.
But now that containment efforts have so far failed to prevent community transmission of COVID-19 from occurring, governors in every state need to decide how to proceed. With little guidance from the federal government, governors—along with mayors, CEOs, university presidents, and leaders in the sports and entertainment businesses—have taken it upon themselves to try to slow the spread of the virus before it overwhelms the medical system’s capacity to respond. Or, better put, a 50-state strategy has emerged to fill the vacuum left by an administration that is still unable to distribute enough testing kits, is still focused on closing borders, and was slow to tell the American public to just stay home.