There has been a fair amount of not–especially–thoughtful commentary about the supposed conflict between conservatives’ support for federalism and the Trump administration’s attempt to stop California from setting air-pollution emissions standards for cars sold in the state.
It’s true that conservatives have often used simplistic rhetoric about federalism, speaking as though “states’ rights” should be maximized. But nobody — left, right, or center — truly believes this. Nobody truly believes that every state should be able to set product standards even if it meant that we could not have nationwide markets or had to have standards for those markets set by the strictest large state. Nobody believes that states should be able to have the right to regulate the air traffic above them however they see fit.
Nobody even believes that every state should be able to set its own emissions standards. The law at issue right now allows a waiver only for one state, California. The Trump administration’s critics aren’t clamoring to change the law to put all the other states on the same plane as California.
The law has given California a special status above that of the other 49 states for political and historical reasons, not because our federalist Constitution requires it. Arguably, the actual theory of the Constitution pushes in favor of having Congress and the courts protect national commerce from being carved up by the states. The waiver is a permissible, but not obligatory, exception to that rule.