O’Donnell and First Amendment: Flub or Dog Whistle

DANI ALEXIS RYSKAMP: When Christine O’Donnell got a laugh out of the Widener Law School student body by asking where in the Constitution one can find “separation of church and state”, I, like many people, chalked it up as another silly comment – like how she is “not a witch” but is me, or how we’re about to be colonized by mice with fully-functioning human brains. On closer inspection, however, I don’t think O’Donnell was merely expressing ignorance. I think she knew exactly what she was saying.

That the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the U.S. Constitution is a well-known conservative talking point. It’s true those words in that order do not appear in the First Amendment – the relevant language actually states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” They do, however, appear in a number of Supreme Court precedents interpreting the First Amendment, and “separation of church and state” has been generally-accepted shorthand for the Establishment Clause since long before Christine O’Donnell stepped onto the scene.

That said, O’Donnell later demonstrated she had no idea what the 14th, 16th or 17th Amendments contained. Repealing the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to those born in the U.S. and the 17th Amendment’s system of electing senators by popular vote, however, have become right-wingnut talking points up there with the “separation of church and state” nonsense. So perhaps O’Donnell doesn’t yet have the full range of conservative dogwhistles in her arsenal. Maybe the mice with fully-functioning human brains can help her with that.

ALLISON REILLY: In O’Donnell’s defense, she did at least know the 17th amendment, and said that doesn’t like the idea of repealing it. But, let’s not forget that in an earlier debate, she couldn’t name a recent Supreme Court decision that she didn’t agree with. The amendment flub has been one of several in the past few months, but at least O’Donnell admits they are flubs and acknowledges her error.

Her inability to name a recent Supreme Court decision that she disagrees with in a prior debate with Democratic opponent Chris Coons has been considered akin to Sarah Palin’s flop with Katie Couric during the 2008 presidential campaign. Both candidates demonstrated that they were clueless about Supreme Court decisions, but at least O’Donnell didn’t try to dodge the question and end up providing a long nebulous answer that nobody understands. I would say knowing a political candidate doesn’t have solid positions is better than a candidate whose positions aren’t solid and definitive. But, only slightly better.

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