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In the foxhole, there are no Federalists.

Wait. Maybe I've got that observation about combatants in wartime a little confused. I'm borrowing the imagery to show what's been rattling around in my head lately: Americans' views of how our government should function shift according to which fight we're in, or which side of a fight we're in.

"In a foxhole, there are no atheists" is how the saying originally goes, suggesting even one's deeply held beliefs can, under pressure, shift toward whatever thinking is necessary to produce a desirable end result. Call it an atheist's form of insurance. Just in case.

Think of your American history: Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and others wanted a strong central government of the United States. Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and others argued for strong state governments with a lesser role for federal authority.

Today, it's hard to tell which approach won the day.

"When somebody's the president of the United States, the authority is total," President Donald Trump said early last week, explaining how the United States would "reopen" -- that is, restore economic activity disrupted by the public health need to stop the spread of covid-19.

Almost immediately, it was like someone bumped an old-style record player, causing the needle to jump off the tune being played and, with a screech, changing to a different song.

"We don't have a king in this country," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo responded. Even mild-manner Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas dismissed Trump's remark, saying the president was just "expressing himself in his normal fashion."

"We will do what is needed in the best interests of Arkansans," Hutchinson said.

They and the nation's other governors have done a huge amount of the heavy lifting in this crisis as Trump, in his daily press briefings, laid responsibility for any perceived problems or shortcomings at the governors' feet. But when it comes to lifting the nation out of the crisis, Trump clearly wants to be positioned to bask in any credit.

Who is in charge? The president? The governor? Mayors? The dogcatcher probably has some ideas, too.

Our founding fathers seemed to stand firm on principle. Janine Parry, who teaches about government at the University of Arkansas' Fayetteville campus, and I spoke last week. She said Americans' ideas about who has or should have authority today shifts from issue to issue and, without a doubt, when there's a change in the party from which the U.S. president comes.

People who believe in a strong central government when Barack Obama is in charge are less convinced when Donald Trump takes the helm. And vice versa.

In the online publication Governing last week, editor-at-large Clay Jenkinson wrote that U.S. history "has been a roller coaster" on the question of state vs. national sovereignty. Jefferson called the national government "the foreign department." Theodore Roosevelt 100 years later believed the federal government could do anything not prohibited in the Constitution, Jenkinson wrote.

I recall a few years back when Fayetteville wanted to establish its own definition of discrimination to include protections based on people's sexual orientation. Those went beyond protections in state law, prompting resistance by state lawmakers who argued cities didn't have those powers.

Advocates for Fayetteville's position argued each community should be able to establish its own standards. But let's flip that notion on its head. If state or federal government leaders established real protections for people based on sexual orientation, would any of the Fayetteville advocates argue individual cities should have the power to preempt such protections?

And so our debate over governing continues. I doubt similar debates happen in North Korea, Russia or China, and maybe that produces more efficient decision-making.

But I'll stick with what we've got right here in the ol' USA, messy as it is.

Commentary on 04/19/2020

Print Headline: Who's in charge? It depends

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