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October 19, 2010

O'Donnell's Kinda Bad Answer On The First Amendment

Actually I'd say it's "really bad," except I know what she was getting at.

But even though I know what she was getting at, she doesn't give much evidence demonstrating the truly important thing: Does she know what she's getting at?

Maybe she does. Sure would be nice if I knew for sure, though.

Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell of Delaware on Tuesday questioned whether the U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state, appearing to disagree or not know that the First Amendment bars the government from establishing religion.

The exchange came in a debate before an audience of legal scholars and law students at Widener University Law School, as O'Donnell criticized Democratic nominee Chris Coons' position that teaching creationism in public school would violate the First Amendment by promoting religious doctrine.

Coons said private and parochial schools are free to teach creationism but that "religious doctrine doesn't belong in our public schools."

"Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?" O'Donnell asked him.

When Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion, O'Donnell asked: "You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?"

Her comments, in a debate aired on radio station WDEL, generated a buzz in the audience.

"You actually audibly heard the crowd gasp," Widener University political scientist Wesley Leckrone said after the debate, adding that it raised questions about O'Donnell's grasp of the Constitution.

There is no doubt the Constitution bars the "establishment of religion." Says so. And O'Donnell did not, in fact, challenge that.

There is considerably more doubt whether it imposes a "wall of separation between Church and State" -- that notion is doctrinal, not textual, and comes not from the Constitution, but from (IIRC) Thomas Jefferson's letters about it.

Now, Jefferson is certainly an important commentator on the Constitution, but his word is not dispositive. The Constitution, by its own terms, prohibits the establishment of a state religion -- anything beyond that is gloss and interpretation.

This is what Christine O'Donnell was getting at -- an important and quite-legitimate argument offered up by conservative-leaning (usually religious) constitutional scholars.

And nothing she actually said betrays a mistake on this point.

But, of course, it does sound as if she questioning that which cannot be questioned, that yes, in the First Amendment, it does prohibit a state religion. It should be pointed out, though, that the moderator and Coons and O'Donnell kept speaking of different terms -- O'Donnell kept asking about the separation of church and state, and Coons spoke of the establishment clause (plus his unstated assertion that this does in fact create the "wall of separation" Jefferson spoke of).

I don't know if she's wrong here, really, or uninformed. But yes, she could have made it very clear and removed all doubt by offering the sort of detail I just did, conceding yes, the establishment clause prohibits the establishment of a state religion, but a state religion is very different than vouchers for private schools (including religious schools), and one cannot take the former to mean the latter.

I don't know. You're supposed to be careful in these areas, and make sure people get what you are saying, not just so you don't look foolish, but so that you can perform a truly critical aspect of politics -- persuasion. Education. Advocacy.

I feel like people keep blowing off this crucial element when looking for leaders. If a leader can't actually persuade the hostiles to your side, is that leadership? Does that advance the cause or retard it? Does that increase acceptance of these views or decrease acceptance by making them seem foolish or outlandish?

This gets into my beef with the idea of True Conservatives. Yes, I'd like True Conservatives in office too. But a True Conservative who fails at the persuasion function of politics isn't helping the cause at all. In fact, it often hurts it.


Oh: It occurs to me I am not respecting the 24 hour rule and what the media quoted might not be all she said -- the media is now simply a partisan enterprise, unofficial worker-bees for the DNC, and it no longer surprises me at all that they simply lie. It could very well be she offered a more expansive answer which they truncated in order to make her look foolish.

Assuming they got the quotes right, which is a dubious 40% proposition, I expect now that Rush and Levin and all of them will now explain to their viewers how her answer wasn't that bad (as I did above).

But it's not the job of a candidate's supporters to do the backfilling and dot-connecting necessary to make an answer work. That's the candidate's job. She's the man in the arena (well, woman).

Reagan was The Great Communicator. He wasn't The Great Half-A-Good-Answer-Giver-Whose-Answers-Could-Be-Rescued-By-Supporters-icator.

This is not a blow-off consideration. It's not enough to just vote right or have the right conclusions; a candidate needs to be able to explain those conclusions in such a way that people with half-baked opinions might be persuaded.


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posted by Ace at 01:34 PM

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