Time for Trump to embrace 'a project of national significance'

To borrow the phrasing of a nine-year-old TV commercial, it's time for Trump to see the response to the pandemic as a project of national significance.
Image: President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Rose Garden of the White House
President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 15, 2020.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

As a rule, network promotional advertisements tend not to have lasting significance, but as the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic falters, I've found myself thinking about an MSNBC commercial from 2011.

In fact, it was nine years ago next week when this ad was released, featuring a friend of mine by the name of Rachel Maddow, who filmed a network promo in front of the Hoover Dam. Her message at the time seems relevant anew:

"When you are this close to Hoover Dam, it makes you realize how small a human is in relation to this as a human project. You can't be the guy who builds this. You can't be the town who builds this. You can't even be the state who builds this. You have to be the country that builds something like this. This is a national project. This is a project of national significance. We've got those projects on the menu right now. And we've got to figure out whether or not we are still a country that can think this big."

To be sure, the political context has changed over the last decade. When that ad first aired, there was a concerted push in Republican politics to dramatically alter public-sector ambitions. GOP leaders and their allies insisted it was time for the United States, especially at the federal level, to think drastically smaller.

As Dana Milbank recently reminded us, one of the best articulations of the right's governing philosophy from that era came from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who once famously declared, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

The political conversation has clearly changed -- especially in recent months. Even most Republicans have abandoned their talking points about limited federal responses, the need for drastic spending cuts, and the importance of austerity-focused deficit reduction.

The era of big government has made a dramatic comeback, due entirely to the necessity of the circumstances.

But there's reason to believe Donald Trump hasn't fully come to terms with the meaning of the developments. At yesterday's White House press briefing, for example, the Republican president once again stressed what he sees as the necessity of states taking the lead on coronavirus testing. It was part of a pattern that's been ongoing for weeks: Trump envisions a policy landscape in which the federal government plays a "backup" role as states, local officials, and the private sector demonstrate -- or at least try to demonstrate -- real leadership.

By all accounts, the president's posture has far less to do with a governing philosophy than a political strategy to avoid blame in an election year: Trump wants dissatisfied Americans to hold their governors responsible, not him.

But as pitiful as the president's position is, it's also a recipe for failure. A strong and ambitious federal government put Americans on the moon. It won World War II. It executed the Marshall Plan. It created the Interstate Highway System. And Social Security. And the Hoover Dam. And the internet.

Whether the president likes it or not, the coronavirus crisis is a problem states alone can't solve. They're doing their best, as evidenced by the wild-west-style scramble among governors for medical supplies and the creation of state-based regional cooperative agreements, filling the leadership vacuum left by the White House, but there's a limit as to what state officials can do. The challenge is simply too big.

To borrow the phrasing of a nine-year-old television commercial, it's time for Donald Trump to see the response to the pandemic as a project of national significance.