The irony is rich. President Obama’s agenda to grow the federal government, expand its reach into financial institutions and health care and take more taxes from the private sector — all the while scolding Republicans for selfishness and wanting to throw granny to the wolves — has resulted in an all-time low in Americans’ opinion of the federal government.

Gov. Chris Christie with Nancy Reagan (Associated Press)

Pew reports:

 [J]ust 28% rate the federal government in Washington favorably. That is down five points from a year ago and the lowest percentage ever in a Pew Research Center survey.

The percentage of Democrats expressing a favorable opinion of the federal government has declined 10 points in the past year, from 51% to 41%. For the first time since Barack Obama became president, more Democrats say they have an unfavorable view of the federal government in Washington than a favorable view (51% unfavorable vs. 41% favorable). Favorable opinions of the federal government among Republicans, already quite low in 2012 (20% favorable), have fallen even further, to 13% currently.

 

Meanwhile, at the state level, where thirty Republican governors are in power, the public is quite satisfied. (“Overall, 63% say they have a favorable opinion of their local government, virtually unchanged over recent years. And 57% express a favorable view of their state government – a five-point uptick from last year.”) This is true regardless of party affiliation: “Nearly identical percentages of Democrats (56%), Republicans (57%) and independents (59%) have a favorable opinion of their state’s government. Similarly, local governments receive positive ratings from 67% of Democrats, 63% of Republicans and 60% of independents.”

That should cheer the Republican Governors Association. But therein also lies a lesson for the incumbents and challengers on the ballot for the House and Senate in 2014. As the government gets bigger, and arguably more dysfunctional, voters get more wary, and more susceptible, it would seem, to arguments in favor of devolving power back to the states.

Republicans in 2014, I have argued, should make the election largely about the disaster-plagued Obamacare. But in actuality this is part of a larger argument. The Democrats want larger, centralized government while the Republicans want Washington to live within its means and give more authority to states and localities. In making that argument, however, it is important for Republicans to explain exactly what they mean.

This does not mean undercutting the federal government where it has primary or sole authority (e.g. immigration, national security). To the contrary, slimming down the federal government should allow it to do its proper functions more effectively. But there are many areas in which the states should be given the chance to get it right. Allow block granting of Medicaid, or at the very least easily obtained waivers so states can economize. Take most of the useless Department of Education, convert the money into vouchers for low- and middle-income families and allow charter and private schools to flourish. On marriage, the Supreme Court may do the heavy lifting but it seems allowing states to craft marriage rules  more reflective of their residents will allow Americans to sort this out via the democratic process.

An abstract appeal to federalism is not likely to win the day. But Republicans who flesh out an agenda which entails respect for and latitude given to states, cities and local communities may have particular appeal. It seems the states are pretty popular these days, and Washington, D.C., politicians, if they can’t emulate the effectiveness and fiscal sanity of the states should at least offload some of the current federal responsibilities to the states. Even if we spend the same money (and theoretically we can spend far less if federal bureaucrats don’t absorb a share and states are better at figuring out how to meet their residents’ needs) it would be worthwhile. With a restoration of federalism we will foster experimentation and competition, which in the end will improve government at all levels.